Thursday, August 12, 2010

FBI threatens Wikipedia with legal action over use of official seal. Wiki fights back.

In a letter sent to the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s parent organization), the FBI deputy general counsel accused the organization of violating federal law, and demanded that an image of the FBI seal displayed in certain Wikipedia entries be taken down.

The FBI quoted parts of 18 U.S.C. 701, and threatened to prosecute, saying that “failure to comply [with the demand] may result in further legal action.” The problem is that the federal agency deliberately left out key portions of the code in order to bolster its claim. According to Wikipedia, the law was merely intended to prevent people from using the seal to misrepresent themselves as agents of the federal government.

It is unclear why the FBI chose to single out Wikipedia, of all things, when a cursory Google image search yields thousands upon thousands of images of the FBI seal, just ripe for the printing.

The clear winner in this situation is Mike Godwin, Wikimedia’s legal counsel, and originator of Godwin’s law. It became clear that neither Godwin, nor his client, was afraid to go toe to toe with the federal agency, when Godwin sent a delightfully cheeky response to the federal agency’s flouncing. “While we appreciate your desire to revise the statute to reflect your expansive vision of it,” Godwin said, “the fact is that we must work with the actual language of the statute, not the aspirational version” of the law that the FBI used.


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