Apparently the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the nation’s top cops, the G-Men, the public enemies of all public enemies, have found a new target: Wikipedia! The New York Times ran a short article yesterday about a funny-if-it-wasn’t-serious situation whereby the FBI recently sent a letter to the San Francisco offices of the Wikimedia Foundation
demanding that it take down an image of the F.B.I. seal accompanying an article on the bureau, and threatened litigation: “Failure to comply may result in further legal action. We appreciate your timely attention to this matter.”
But the Foundation won’t budge:
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, and not about posting images on noncommercial Web sites. 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 relevant statute, helpfully linked by the New York Times, states:
§ 701. Official badges, identification cards, other insignia
Whoever manufactures, sells, or possesses any badge, identification card, or other insignia, of the design prescribed by the head of any department or agency of the United States for use by any officer or employee thereof, or any colorable imitation thereof, or photographs, prints, or in any other manner makes or executes any engraving, photograph, print, or impression in the likeness of any such badge, identification card, or other insignia, or any colorable imitation thereof, except as authorized under regulations made pursuant to law, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.
I do find it ironic, considering that Wikipedia and other projects administered by its parent organization are among the most scrupulous on the whole of the Internet about respecting copyright law.
In most circumstances, Wikipedia requires that images used on the site be in the public domain or released under a free license explicitly permitting such use. Only in circumstances where there is no hope a suitable alternative may be available does the site allow copyrighted images, and only then under very limited circumstances. If you want to use the Nike swoosh on your user page or the article about Michael Jordan, no such luck but you will certainly find it on the company’s corporate profile.
The FBI seal, as a work of the United States government, falls under the first category — it is considered public domain — but its use is nevertheless limited to pages about certain FBI-specific subjects. And the photo’s page on the Wikipedia server even includes this helpful advisory:
With no sources inside The House J. Edgar Hoover Built, I’m puzzled as to why they would do this. Perhaps they got the site confused with WikiLeaks?