Rogue seal runs rampant in wiki world: FBI on the case

The IPKat has probably blighted his standing among US law enforcement officers forever by reporting this, but the BBC got there first with "Wikipedia and FBI in logo use row", posted yesterday on that august institution's website.

Apparently a dispute has broken out between Wikipedia and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over the use of the latter's seal (right). The FBI is reported as having written to Wikipedia's San Francisco office, informing it that unauthorised reproduction of the FBI Seal was prohibited by US law, which states
"Whoever possesses any insignia...or any colorable imitation thereof ... shall be fined ... or imprisoned ... or both".
Wikipedia denied that it had done anything wrong when garnishing its wiki entry for the FBI with an image of the seal, saying the FBI lawyers had misquoted the law.

Says the IPKat, it will be good to get a court ruling on whether Wikipedia can be said to "possess" the insignia by virtue of its having been uploaded on to a server. It would also be great to know whether the FBI has registered its seal as a US trade mark and whether it enforces the copyright in it. Come on, US readers, do let us know!

Merpel says, even if the FBI is right, is its position not a futile one, designed to generate ill-will and achieve nothing by way of compensatory advantage? An image search using Google, or indeed Bing, shows how ubiquitous those images are in the online world.

The IPKat thanks Craig Watson (Murgitroyd and Company) for this lead.
Rogue seal runs rampant in wiki world: FBI on the case Rogue seal runs rampant in wiki world: FBI on the case Reviewed by Jeremy on Wednesday, August 04, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. At least one of those questions is easy to answer: all work of the U.S. federal government is automatically in the public domain, so there is no copyright claim to defend. Which is why the FBI is reduced to trying to claim that a law written to criminalize using official symbols to impersonate a federal agent or give the impression of official federal business can be used to prevent an encyclopedia from displaying the FBI seal in its article for the FBI.

  2. 18 U.S.C § 701 in full ... "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."

  3. Presumably there's a First Amendment angle to this. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the First Amendment reproduces the Great Seal of the United States. The articles on the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security reproduce their respective seals/badges also.

  4. While works may in some respects be in the public domain there can still be restrictions attached. I see Wikipedia editors are aware of this:

    Similarly there could very well be restrictions relating to other works, including the FBI seal.

    The Economist has run a few stories about justice, US style. It would seem advicable to take FBI very, very seriously in this matter.


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