FBI Picks a Fight with Wikipedia

    August 9, 2010
    Chris Crum

This week, the New York Times and BBC News both reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has sent the Wikimedia Foundatation a letter, ordering the removal of an image of the Bureau’s seal from its Wikipedia entry. The Wikimedia Foundation’s response thus far has basically  been, "no."

Should the seal be removed from Wikipedia? Share your thoughts.

The NYT provides copies of both the FBI’s letter, and the Wikimedia Foundation’s response. Pretty entertaining stuff. The FBI’s letter, signed by Deputy General Counsel David C. Larson, begins:

It has come to our attention that the FBI seal is posted, without authorization, on Wikipedia at the following site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US-FBIShadedSeal. svg . As the site itself notes, "Unauthorized use of the FBI seal . . . is subject to criminal prosecution under Federal criminal law, including 18 U.S.C. 701."

The FBI Seal is an official insignia of the Department of Justice. Its primary purpose is to authenticate the official communications and actions of the FBI. Unauthorized reproduction or use of the FB I Seal is prohibited by 18 United States Code, Section 701, which provides:

Whoever manufactures, sells, or possesses any insignia, of the design prescribed by the [Department head] or any colordble 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 insignia, or any colorable imitation thereof, except as authorized under regulation made pursuant to law, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both…

See the whole letter here (pdf).

Wikipedia's FBI page

The Wikimedia Foundation’s letter, signed by General Counsel Mike Godwin, begins:

Dear Deputy Director Larson,

First, thank you for taking my call Thursday, and congratulations on your imminent retirement after so many years of service. It’s unfortunate that on such an otherwise happy occasion I must inform you that the Bureau’s reading of 18 U.S.C. 701 is both idiosyncratic (made especially so by your strategic redaction of important language) and, more importantly, incorrect.

I’m writing you, of course, regarding your recent letter reiterating the Bureau’s invocation of 18 U.S.C. 701 and your demand for removal of the image of the FBI Seal on Wikipedia (images of which are widely available elsewhere, including on the Encyclopedia Britannica website, last I checked). You may recall that in my initial email response to your estimable Assistant General Counsel, Mr. Binney, I pointed to cases construing Section 701 and that, in a subsequent email, I broadly hinted that ejusdem generis, a standard accepted canon of statutory construction, demonstrates that this statute is inapposite to the use of an image of the seal on an encyclopedia.

It’s clear that you and Mr. Binney took the hint, although perhaps not in the way I would have preferred. Entertainingly, in support for your argument, you included a version of 701 in which you removed the very phrases that subject the statute to ejusdem generis analysis. 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 of Section 701 that you forwarded to us…

See that whole letter here.

Clearly, the Wikimedia Foundation firmly believes that it is not in the wrong here, and is prepared to go to court with the FBI, if it comes to that, as Godwin notes in the letter.

It will be interesting to see if the FBI pursues this, as everyone else wonders why the FBI isn’t focused on more pressing matters. I can’t imagine what harm the FBI’s seal is doing on a non-profit community encyclopedia site aimed at spreading knowledge.

Which side do you agree with? The FBI’s or the Wikimedia Foundation’s? Let us know.