The FBI v. Wikipedia

The FBI is mad that Wikipedia has published a copy of its seal on their site.

Via the NYTF.B.I., Challenging Use of Seal, Gets Back a Primer on the Law

The bureau wrote a letter in July to the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia, demanding that it take down an image of the F.B.I. seal accompanying an article on the bureau, and threatened litigation


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.

In looking at the law, I can see a reading going to either side.  However, it does seem to be more oriented towards either stopping counterfeit badges and/or people making money by making duplicates.  It does not appear to be oriented toward stopping an informational outlet from publishing such information.

At a minimum, I have to agree with the following:

Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the dust-up both “silly” and “troubling”; Wikipedia has a First Amendment right to display the seal, she said.

“Really,” she added, “I have to believe the F.B.I. has better things to do than this.”


FILED UNDER: US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. James Joyner says:

    And absent fraudulent intent, I don’t see how a government logo could be anything but in the public domain.

  2. sam says:

    hehe .. put “FBI seal” in google…I mean, really. The freakin’ thing is all over the web. Moreover, if you click on the images link, turns out there’s a whole buncha companies out there using the seal on their page as advertising. Jesus, call out the Marines…

  3. Indeed on both counts.

    I suspect (indeed, am near certain) that as I type there are guys outside the J. Edgar Hoover building selling t-shirts with the FBI logo on it.

  4. mantis says:

    Agreed, but I must say I feel the FBI’s pain a little bit.  Not too long ago I had the displeasure of trying to remove a person’s scanned signature from his bio page on Wikipedia.  It was included in an internal email, and some unknown recipient decided to add the signature image to the Wikipedia page. The subject (my boss) discovered this, and I was tasked with getting it removed. It took weeks of arguing with Wikipedians, the involvement of moderators, and a bunch of general stupidity about privacy.  Many Wikipedians, it seems, feel that any personal information, if attainable, is appropriate for prominent placement on Wikipedia.  I asked at the time if they would feel comfortable posting a subject’s social security number, home address, date of birth, and mother’s maiden name on a bio page.  The person who defended the signature image said yes. Keep in mind we are not talking about a politician or other public figure, but rather a private citizen working for a private institution.
    I was ultimately successful, but what a huge waste of time it was getting there.

  5. Franklin says:

    I suspect (indeed, am near certain) that as I type there are guys outside the J. Edgar Hoover building selling t-shirts with the FBI logo on it.

    I’m wearing one right now.  I suppose it’s illegal to do so, especially if I was out trying to arrest people or search their homes.