FBI claims no-one may publish its seal

FBI-articleInline.jpgThe FBI ordered wikipedia to remove its seal from the article there about the bureau. It threatened to litigate. Unfortunately for the FBI, the law it cited is the one that forbids making counterfeit badges, and Wikimedia's lawyers mocked them in its response. John Schwartz in the NYT: "Many sites, including the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, display the seal. Other organizations might simply back down. But Wikipedia sent back a politely feisty response, stating that the bureau's lawyers had misquoted the law. 'While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it, the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version' that the F.B.I. had provided." The part that's hard to understand is why the FBI would seek to abuse the law in such petulant fashion, knowing that it will be subject to public ridicule for its actions. F.B.I., Challenging Use of Seal, Gets Back a Primer on the Law [NYT via submitterator. Thanks, OdMeadhbh]


  1. Maybe someone at the FBI doesn’t know the difference between Wikipedia and Wikileaks and decided to declare Jimmy Wales “Public Enemy #1.”

  2. Easy: They’ve got ‘Wiki’ in their name, and therefore are clearly linked to Wikileaks, and must be brought down using any means possible.

  3. Bravo! It’s so rare that lawyers get to have fun drafting letters like this one, or the one from the blue-jeans cables.

  4. Ahhh the U.S Goverment… why have common sense, intelligence, or integrity when you can have incompetence, prevarication, corruption and a very unsubtle fear of an informed populace that exercises their rights to the fullest extent?

  5. I think it has to do more with free culture than with wiki leaks. The company that’s defending Hollywood may not want anyone to be able to state (as fact) what they think of them, and Wikipedia allows that.

  6. I see that the lawyer who wrote the feisty reply is no other than Mike Godwin, of “Godwin’s Law.” Fantatic letter!

    1. I see that the lawyer who wrote the feisty reply is no other than Mike Godwin, of “Godwin’s Law.” Fantatic letter!

      Christ, what a Nazi.

  7. Yes, very hard to understand. Why, no part of the federal government has ever done anything foolish and embarrassing before, nor misconstrued or misrepresented the law. What a strange fluke, this incident.

  8. For me, this calls into question the FBI’s interpretation of the laws they are called upon to enforce. The agency’s expansion of powers over the past few years combined with a possibly self-serving or erroneous interpretation of the law is not comforting.

  9. I encourage everyone to follow the link above to the NYT article, then follow the link there to the .pdf of the original letter and read the whole thing (it’s not very long). That may be the most beautifully-written legal reply I’ve ever read. Kudos to Mr. Godwin.

    1. I just did (read the whole letter) and I’m a better person for it. Three cheers for Mike Godwin.

    2. Agreed on that one – the original letter is worth reading. It’s rare that a legally unambiguous and concise letter is also clearly written and an enjoyable read.

      @Mark, I was gonna say the same thing! He has a knack for clever writing.

  10. Ludicrous! The FBI in this case is acting like a private corporation. As far as I know American tax payers paid the salary of the designer as well as the time spent by FBI staff in wrongly trying bend the law. Who owns the FBI and the seal?

  11. The part that’s hard to understand is why the FBI would seek to abuse the law in such petulant fashion, knowing that it will be subject to public ridicule for its actions.

    From the Times article: An F.B.I. spokesman, William Carter, said that such letters go out “from time to time” from the office of general counsel.

    The current GC is Valerie Caproni, who held the job under Bush. She’s not the worst of the last administration–she’s apparently responsible for seeing that FBI agents didn’t engage in “enhanced interrogations”–but seriously, any lawyer who valued the Constitution wouldn’t have given them the time of day.

  12. Apparently the kind of people who used to try to publicly shame you because you broke some formal etiquette in your flag-hanging? … are still out there.

  13. From the NYT article: “The problem, those at Wikipedia say, is that the law cited in the F.B.I.’s letter is largely about keeping people from flashing fake badges or profiting from the use of the seal…”

    Wikipedia does indeed profit from use of the seal. “Omg we are so cool we are Wikicultists we made the best encyclopedia evar!”

    I’d argue that the law, as “those at Wikipedia say,” runs into First Amendment problems. But, the people who run Wikipedia do profit from having good articles, and an image makes an article better.

  14. “The part that’s hard to understand is why the FBI would seek to abuse the law in such petulant fashion, knowing that it will be subject to public ridicule for its actions.”

    I sense office politics. A more junior web-savvy FBI lawyer “advises” a more senior FBI lawyer who is clueless about the web to pursue this course of action with vigor. This contributes to a series of events leading to a shift in management in this particular FBI department, possibly to the the junior lawyer’s advantage.

  15. I’m betting this logo thing is the only thing Wikileaks does that isn’t strictly the purview of the CIA.

    And that obviously chafed someone at the FBI pretty bad.

    1. I agree. The last line in the letter is the best:

      With all appropriate respect,
      Mike Godwin

      I am totally stealing that Complimentary Closing for when I write to small-minded, arrogant, mendacious, authoritarian assholes.


  16. Like probably a zillion other people, I immediately followed the link and downloaded the thing. It might come in handy. Whenever I see evidence of an egregious abuse of power, I can simply use this thing (or a suitably modified version of it…after all, I wouldn’t want to break the law) as “The Fascist Idiots’ Seal of Approval”.

  17. How embarrassing. They should have consulted with whichever department of the Federal government that’s supposed to know about laws and stuff.

  18. You know how a 2 year old child will deliberately do things they know are wrong to test the point at which they will be able to get away with it?

    All government agencies are 2 year old children.

  19. It’s the Federal Bureau of what? Inquisition? Interrogation? Information? Inference? Instigation? Ineptitude? Inflation? Irrelevance? Illegality? Irritation? Help me out here…

  20. Note that most bootleg movies leave out the FBI copyright warning. Maybe copying the logo is what the warning is about, not the movie that follows..

  21. Dear Federal Bureau of Investigation,

    We paid for your goddamned seal, and we’ll use it however we goddamned please.


    The Citizens of the United States

  22. I love the “appropriate.” So much better than the usual “with all due respect,” even if you underline ‘due’.

    Whoever wrote the takedown letter deserves mockery, not respect.

  23. Wikipedia really abuses the notions of “fair use” and “public domain.”

    As a photo researcher, I’ve been asked many times to obtain the seals of government agencies and permission to reproduce them in textbooks. Unlike much other government material, these seals are NOT in the public domain.

    1. Your point makes sense. The same logic sounds like it applies to unauthorized possession of law enforcement badges, etc.

    2. “Unlike much other government material, these seals are NOT in the public domain.”

      If the seal was public domain, fair use would be irrelevant. The whole point of fair use is that one can make limited use of copyrighted materials without permission.

  24. Among law enforcement types, the FBI is nicknamed ‘The Feebs’. I think we all know why now.

    “not the aspirational version” is such a great line.

  25. I came hoping the seal would be at the top of the article. I was not disappointed.

    You mean BB is not afraid of idiot bullies?! Oh noes!

  26. From the point of view of a marketing/advertising person, the seal is their “brand” or logo. The correct protocol of any person or company wanting to use a logo in an article should always ask permission. The company or agency who has the logo usually makes sure it will not be used inappropriately. I agree that it does not hurt the FBI to have their seal used in that way but it is still their decision.
    I see there are man other logos/seals on Wikipedia. Did they ask permission to use those? While the exposure only helps nonprofit and governmental agencies, it still requires their permission, especially when there is a TM, SM or copyright.

  27. The CIA once sent me a letter with their seal on it. It was high quality. That letter could have easily been used to make a beliveable card. Under the FBI’s logic, just having the letter would be unauthorized becuase it could be turned into a card. BTW, I kind of see the FBI’s point because the seal on Wikipedia is way above necessary resolution.

  28. We should all use the seal on our websites and in our emails. They’d finally have to make use of those phantom PEMA prisons that they built wherever. (No, I don’t really believe they exist.)

  29. To whom in the Federal Bureau of Investigation do I send the invoice to get my tax money back? This is absolutely ridiculous. Whomsoever gave the greenlight on this needs to tender a resignation immediately.

  30. Didn’t Rhino Entertainment use to show the FBI seal on their copyright slates at the head of their videos? With some dude in a blue suit (who may have been J. Edgar Hoover for all I know)? And didn’t an animated red mustache and goatee get “painted” onto the G-man’s face every time?

    Or am I remembering that wrong?

  31. Don Kiyoti: “public domain” and “fair use” are copyright concepts and irrelevant here. If, as seems likely, the seal was designed by a US government employee they are works of the US government and not subject to domestic copyright. But the FBI wasn’t accusing anybody of copyright, or even trademark violation. They were being accused of violating a specific law that is obviously intended to prevent people from using fake badges to pass themselves off as agents, something that Wikipedia was hardly doing.

  32. It is another action by the braniacs that think brute force is great intimidation factor. They can puff their chest up all they want.

    The governemtn is getting really stupid lately, oh never mind In know why. Moving on.

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