FBI Threatens to Sue Wikipedia over Seal Use

August 4, 2010 Off By David
SpecOps Breached Password Report
Grazed from eWeek.  Author: Clint Boulton.

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 in 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’s or Godwin’s letters, it seems they 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.