As we've noted plenty of times in the past, works produced by the federal government are not subject to copyright. However, they are (almost inexplicably) subject to both patent and trademark protection, where those things apply. A little while back, Jim Gourley over at Foreign Policy looked into how the Pentagon has gone trademark slap happy
over the last five years or so (the headline of the article falsely implies that it has also gone copyright happy, despite barely mentioning copyright, and in the one spot it does, totally confusing copyright and trademarks).
The program began in 2007 when the Defense Department issued a directive calling for the component services to establish a branding and trademark licensing office, which would answer to the DOD level through a separate office working for the undersecretary of defense for public affairs. Holding to its tradition of being first in the fight, the Marines were the most aggressive in the early going. In 2009, they began contacting large-scale print-on-demand t-shirt suppliers Zazzle and CafePress. It immediately shut down several small online retailers of military-themed hats and shirts. It even came up with rules applying to USMC-themed stuff sold on Etsy.
The other services quickly caught up. Between 2007 and 2011, sales of officially-licensed U.S. Army merchandise increased from $5 million to $50 million
It does note that the military seems to realize that going after small retailers who are selling things face-to-face isn't wise, because "they're probably engaging in healthy patriotism." But, anyone else may be facing a bill from the Defense Department -- an organization that probably has the world's largest budget already. This should
raise serious questions about why the US government should be granted trademarks in the first place. Yes, you could argue that the Defense Department doesn't want "shoddy" military merchandise out there, but is that really something the government needs to be concerned about? The US government isn't supposed to be a commercial enterprise. It could easily highlight and focus on "official" military gear to distinguish it from unofficial gear, without having to show up and force everyone else selling military-themed t-shirts that they need to kick back an extra "licensing" fee on top of any taxes they already have to pay.