FBI Agent Tries To Register Copyright On Top Secret Interrogation Manual... Making It Available To Anyone

from the copyright-uber-alles dept

Here's a bizarre one on so many levels. The FBI has a top secret 70-page "interrogation manual." For years, the ACLU has been trying to get its hands on a copy, finally receiving a heavily redacted one. However, it turns out that if the good folks at the ACLU had just decided to wander over to the Library of Congress, they could have seen a totally unredacted copy of the entire manual, as could anyone else with a library card. Why? Because in this bizarre age we live in, in which people seem to think it's important to copyright absolutely everything the senior FBI official who authored the manual decided that he should try to register a copyright on it, and submitted it to the Library of Congress as a part of the registration process, whereby it becomes available to anyone who stops by and asks for it.

This is idiotic on multiple levels. First, as is well known, documents produced by federal government employees are automatically public domain, meaning that you cannot copyright them. Second, of course, why the hell would this FBI supervisory special agent think it even made the least bit of sense to try to get a copyright, let alone submit a copy of the top secret manual to the Library of Congress? Then, of course, there's the issue that even if it was possible to put a copyright on this document (and, again, there's not), it would almost certainly belong not to the individual FBI agent, but to the government itself. Not only can't this guy get a copyright, but there's no reason for him to try to get a copyright (what, is he going to sell the book?), and then revealing the manual to anyone, let alone an operation whose basic entire purpose is to catalog the works and make them available to the public is quite incredible.

Mother Jones, who went and found the manual at the Library of Congress, quotes a few people who are reasonably shocked that this happened:
"A document that has not been released does not even need a copyright," says Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. "Who is going to plagiarize from it? Even if you wanted to, you couldn't violate the copyright because you don't have the document. It isn't available."

"The whole thing is a comedy of errors," he adds. "It sounds like gross incompetence and ignorance."

Julian Sanchez, a fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute who has studied copyright policy, was harsher: "Do they not cover this in orientation? [Sensitive] documents should not be placed in public repositories—and, by the way, aren't copyrightable. How do you even get a clearance without knowing this stuff?"
Aftergood's comments are a little misleading, as there are certainly reasons why someone might want to register a copyright on an unpublished work (though, none of them apply to this particular work), and plagiarism is a different issue from infringement. But his point about "gross incompetence and ignorance" seems on point.

Of course, now that the full document can be seen by anyone, Mother Jones compared it to the ACLU's redacted version, and while they're not allowed to make copies or take notes when viewing the document, they were able to look at some of the redacted sections, including revealing some questionable techniques. From what's been revealed, it appears that the manual does encourage the use of very outdated and discredited interrogation techniques. In an interesting bit of timing, there was just a fascinating New Yorker article focusing on how law enforcement in the US still uses this completely debunked method, known as the "Reid Technique," which has a long history of eliciting false confessions (there's also a really good summary of the details over at NPR). US law enforcement has long been resistant to moving away from these methods, despite their ineffectiveness, but thanks to one not-particularly-knowledgeable FBI agent's desire to copyright an uncopyrightable work, we now know a bit more about the FBI's continued promotion of these techniques.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Dec 2013 @ 12:16pm

    Re: Why no copying?

    The work isn't even copyrighted. It makes no sense.

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