FBI Threatens to Sue Wikipedia Over Seal Use

Aug 3rd, 2010 | By technologynews | Category: Technology

The Federal Bureau of Investigation asked the Wikimedia
Foundation to take down an image of the FBI seal from its popular Wikipedia
online encyclopedia because it violates a U.S. law.

An attorney for the Wikimedia told the FBI it’s reading
of the law was “idiosyncratic” and “incorrect” and vowed to
fight for the right to use the seal in court.

This Web page describing the FBI seal does clearly
state that “unauthorized use of the FBI seal is subject to prosecution
under federal criminal law…”

Use of the seal is permitted only by the FBI director.

FBI Deputy Director David Larson wrote in a July 28 letter
to Wikimedia that the Website’s use of the seal, used in this Wikipedia entry about the FBI, was illegal
because it constitutes unauthorized use.

Larson asked
Wikimedia in this
letter, which the New York Times published:

“Please
remove the FBI Seal from the Wikipedia site(s) within 14 days of receiving this
letter and notify us of your compliance… Failure to comply may result in
further legal action.”

However,
Wikimedia General Counsel Mike Godwin argued in a July 30 written response that
the seal is widely used online, including on the Encyclopedia Britannica
Website.

Moreover,
he said Larson revised the U.S. statute to underscore his “expansive
vision of it” and that 18 United States Code 701 is intended to protect
the public against the use of the seal by people pretending to be FBI agents.

Godwin argued
that is not the same as unlawful or illegal because it is not being used by
Wikipedia to trick others into believing it represents the federal government.

“Badges
and identification cards are physical manifestations that may be used by a possessor
to invoke the authority of the federal government,” Godwin wrote in his
letter, which the Times published
here. “An encyclopedia article is not.”

“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,”
Godwin said, adding that Wikimedia is touch with other lawyers to argue its
point in court.

While
the terms First Amendment and fair use weren’t bandied about in either Larson
or Godwin’s letters, it seems those apply and that Wikipedia is under fire
simply because it is such a major Web destination.

It’s
unlikely the FBI would go after the Times, which used the seal in this
story, or blogs such as
TechDirt, which posted a big FBI seal to illustrate the point.

Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn told eWEEK its unlikely that a court would order Wikipedia to take
down the seal.

“We certainly hope that
the FBI wouldn’t take this issue to court,” Cohn added.

 

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