FBI Claims Wikipedia Can't Display Its Logo

from the good-luck-on-that dept

Apparently the FBI has some free time on its hands. How else can you explain this bizarre, and almost certainly legally questionable attempt to force Wikipedia to remove its logo on Wikipedia’s article on the FBI:

Wikipedia’s General Counsel, Mike Godwin (yes, of Godwin’s law fame) responded to the FBI with a delightfully snarky reply (pdf) noting that the FBI’s reading of the law concerning displaying an FBI badge is clearly written to prevent people from falsely presenting themselves as being with the FBI or directly profiting from the use of the seal:
Godwin notes that the version of the law that the FBI conveniently sent him just happened to omit some parts of the law, which basically show that the law is entirely focused on such attempts to use the logo to deceive. Among the key passages:

Entertainingly, in support for your argument, you included a version of 701 in which you removed the very phrases that subject the statute to ejusdem generis analysis. 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 of Section 701 that you forwarded to us.

In your letter, you assert that an image of an FBI seal included in a Wikipedia article is “problematic” because “it facilitates both deliberate and unwitting violations” of 18 U.S.C. 701. I hope you will agree that the adjective “problematic,” even if it were truly applicable here, is not semantically identical to “unlawful.” Even if it could be proved that someone, somewhere, found a way to use a Wikipedia article illustration to facilitate a fraudulent representation, that would not render the illustration itself unlawful under the statute. As the leading case interpreting Section 701 points out, “The enactment of § 701 was intended to protect the public against the use of a recognizable assertion of authority with intent to deceive.” … Our inclusion of an image of the FBI Seal is in no way evidence of any “intent to deceive,” nor is it an “assertion of authority,” recognizable or otherwise.

Godwin also points out that the Encyclopaedia Britannica appears to have an image of the logo as well. As for our own usage here, I’ll first note that the NY Times is also displaying the logo with its story, and it would seem that all three of us are similarly not running afoul of this law, in that none of us are using the logo with any attempt to deceive at all, but to display factual information for the sake of informing.

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Comments on “FBI Claims Wikipedia Can't Display Its Logo”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Mr. Godwin’s statement of statutory interpretation is correct, but I do have to wonder why he chose this particular manner or response to a federal agency that is under the Department of Justice. He could have made his point and declination on behalf of his client in a simple one page letter without resort to gratuitous jabs at the FBI.

Again, his letter is accurate regarding how such statutory language is historically interpreted, but I question his method of communication.

As an aside, I wonder if the subject of trademarks has been discussed. While I believe it is inappropriate for federal agencies to assert trademark rights given the general treatment of the subject by other federal statutes, trademarls are not covered in any manner under federal law in an unambiguous manner as is the case with copyright.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Those who are worthy of respect should be treated respectfully. The FBI has acted in a manner that is clearly not worthy of respect, leaving out relevant portions of the law in order to assert rights it does not possess. Godwin’s reply was not only appropriate, but well deserved.

Rooker (user link) says:

Re: Re:

In what way is it so relevant that the FBI is “a federal agency that is under the Department of Justice” that you feel the need to point it out?

“He could have made his point …”

He also could have made his point in any number of ways, including by way of a video response dressed as a clown juggling flaming torches. What is your point?


I could be wrong, but as they are an agency of the United States government, I don’t believe they have a right to register trademarks. That’s how it works for copyright anyhow.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I suspect I’d get snarky, too, if I was presented with a demand that, creatively, deleted part of the law being discussed in a way to shape that law to the desires of those making the demand.

As I’m not directly involved in this dispute let me express what the FBI is doing when they engage in such things (or anyone, to be fair) they are liars.

Nor did I read anything gratuitous in the letter. I did read a very annoyed lawyer who knew better and restored the deleted bits to make his argument and interpretation.

In legal terms what he did was spank them which they deserved.

And even if trademark law applied, which it doesn’t, how does printing the seal in Wikipedia confuse anyone into thinking that the FBI and Wikipedia are one and the same?

Other than Mike’s moron in a hurry?

Jack says:

Re: Mike's tone

“He could have made his point and declination on behalf of his client in a simple one page letter without resort to gratuitous jabs at the FBI.”

In some cases you might be right, but the FBI was overreaching here, throwing around its authority without justification, which in my mind is SERIOUSLY wrong. Wikipedia has the clout and the money to slap the FBI’s hand and let them know they can’t get away with that.

If you ask me, Mike did us all a service with his sharp tone.

Jack says:

Re: Re: Re: Mike's tone

“Wikimedia does not in fact have money – it’s a charity funded by public donations. What it does have is Mike ;-)”

To be honest I know nothing of Wikipedia’s (or Wikimedia’s) finances. But there are some pretty wealthy public charities out there, and my point is that the Wiki corporate family clearly has enough money to employ Mike and finance a trial.

Not that this’ll go to trial. FBI’s not that stupid.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity?

What a bunch of cowardly liars.

“Entertainingly, in support for your argument, you included a version of 701 in which you removed the very phrases that subject the statute to ejusdem generis analysis. 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 of Section 701 that you forwarded to us. “
LOVE IT!!!!!!

nasch (profile) says:


You should read the whole letter but in case you don’t, I really liked the closing as well.

“In short, then, we are compelled as a matter of law and principle to deny your demand for removal of the FBI Seal from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. We are in contact with outside counsel in this matter, and we are prepared to argue our view in court.”

To the point, and leaves no doubt where the matter stands. Well done.

Anonymous Coward says:

Now you see it, now you don't, now you do

Heh, I went to the WP site a few minutes ago and the logo was gone. Then, a few minutes later, it was back. The funny thing is, those changes aren’t reflected in the page history, so they must have been made internally at WP. I guess they can’t make up their mind.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Now you see it, now you don't, now you do

Or it could be that the logo is in a template; so it would be reflected on the template’s history, not the page’s. It could also be a change on the image itself (reflected on the image’s history).

It would be bizarre to selectively delete the revisions removing the logo, unless you were trying to remove all the revisions adding the logo and the logo itself (and even then, with the image gone, they would be innocuous; this is usually done for personal information).

AudibleNod (profile) says:

Getting Jumped In

The White House pulled the same thing five years ago with ‘The Onion’ using the White Hose logo. I bet it’s some sort of lawyer initiation hazing prank where the new guy has to send a C&D letter and see if anyone complies. If that’s the case, it a better use of taxpayer money than I thought.


Chagri Lama (profile) says:

FBI Insignia

So let’s see: The insignia, according to 18 USC 701 is to be used by authorized and official people to invoke and convey the authority of the agency. When an FBI agent asks me to accompany him/her and flashes the badge, it invokes their authority to ask that. I am supposed to comply, or bear whatever consequences.

BUT: If no one is supposed to display the insignia, then how would I KNOW that the badge is a tool of invocation of authority?

The FBI wants everyone to become a mindreader, huh?

Godwin’s reply is proper, measured, factual, and conveys all the seriousness the FBI’s reques deserves. This is ashow of muscle, an act of intimidation, his response is simply “Don’t f**k with me, I know the law as well as you! Go away…”

There is an old story about some yo-ho who received one of those pictures-tickets for $xx for driving through in a red light – the camera caught him. He did a dumb thing: Sent in a picture of said amount (not the actual money, or check.) The Police department (I think it was Los Angeles PD) send back a reply: A picture of handcuffs. Compliance achieved! :-)))

I think that humorous reply, PROVIDED IT IS TO THE POINT, is perfecly good and perfectly acceptable, certainly not illegal, and in most cases will get either a humorous (and to the point!) response, or a dry business response. There is no way any clerk, IRS, FBI, whoever, will risk treating a citizen (or anyone else for that matter) with less than correctness.

My $0.02

theskyrider (profile) says:

The reason that Wikipedia can't use the logo is......

that they are a non-profit organization. If they were a for-profit organization like every record label (RIAA) and every movie studio (MPAA) then they could use the logo on every page of Wikipedia.

That includes, of course, subjecting you to a 60-second picture of the logo above some text that tells you that copying, even not-for-profit, personal use copying, is stealing and the FBI will HUNT YOU DOWN!.

Call me Al says:

Somewhat disturbing

While I find the response hilarious I’m rather more concerned about the FBI’s initial demand. The fact that they have sent legal correspondence after having edited the item of law in question is deeply disturbing. I wonder how many other examples of this there are… likely to people who are not as knowledgeable and confident as Mike Godwin.

It really worries me that the police and security services of the so called “free world” are reinterpreting and rewriting the rule books to give themselves more powers then have been legitimately handed to them by the government. We’ve got to be able to trust that what they say is true, when they demonstrate that our trust is misplaced it undermines the whole system and shakes the foundations of our society.

Anonymous Coward says:

Quite frankly, the statutory construction being argued by both sides seems to overlook a rather important point. 18 USC 701 is a criminal statute having nothing to do with matters of civil law.

Am I to believe that the FBI has now taken to writing letters requesting specific organizations to cease commiting crimes?

Having reviewed Chapter 33 to Title 18 of the United States Code, I am equally worried about using the 4-H emblem, the Swiss Confederation seal, the Red Cross seal, Smokey Bear, and Woodsy Owl, any one of which could land me in jail for up to six months and having to pay a fine.

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