Is it Illegal to Post an Image of the FBI’s Seal?

According to CNN:

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has threatened Wikipedia with legal action if the online encyclopedia doesn’t remove the FBI’s seal from its site.

The seal is featured in an encyclopedia entry about the FBI.

Wikipedia isn’t backing down, however. The online encyclopedia — which is run by a nonprofit group and is edited by the public — sent a chiding letter to the FBI, explaining why, in its view, the FBI is off its legal rocker.

The FBI’s letter threatening Wikipedia is here.  The letter states, in part:

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 FBI 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 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 . . . 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.

Regulations governing authorizations to use the seals of Department of Justice components, including the FBI, are published in Title 41, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 128-1.5007(b), and require requests for authorizations to use the FBI Seal to be referred to the Director of the FBI. The FBI has not authorized use of the FBI seal on Wikipedia. The inclusion of a high quality graphic of the FBI seal on Wikipedia is FBI/DOJ is particularly problematic, because it facilitates both deliberate and unwitting violations of these restrictions by Wikipedia users.  The purpose of this letter is to advise you of these legal requirements and to seek your compliance with the law by removing the, FBI Seal from the above site and any other sites under your control on which it appears.

The FBI’s claim is ridiculous.  The statute, when quoted in full, suggests that the law’s purpose is to prevent the forgery of FBI badges and insignia, not to prevent the use of the image on a website.  Here is the statute quoted in full, without the omissions:

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.

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8 Responses

  1. shg says:

    Many of us have posted an image of the FBI seal to make a point. It probably would have been a lot more meaningful if you used fewer words and one image. Notably, your post contains no image at all.

  2. I wish I could find some high-quality legal commentary on the various conflicting assertions. To wit:

    “The statute, when quoted in full, suggests that the law’s purpose is to prevent the forgery of FBI badges and insignia, not to prevent the use of the image on a website.”

    Without taking a side, the above may beg the question, since part of the claim seems to be that a high-quality graphic facilitates forgery. A key part of the dispute appears to be whether there’s some sort of “intent” requirement, and either way (there is or there isn’t) is not obvious to me.

    (Disclaimer – I am not a lawyer, I just read about these issues).

  3. Dissent says:

    Given the timing of the notice, the elephant in this particular room appears to be the Wikileaks exposure of the Afghan Diary. I’m somewhat surprised that more bloggers aren’t just calling them out on what appears to me to be harassment or vindictiveness on the Obama administration’s part.

    Ridiculous, indeed.

  4. I don’t think this had anything to do with Wikileaks. In fact, that’s kind of funny if you think about it:

    “This Wikileaks scandal is so embarrassing – we must strike back somehow!”

    “I’ve got it! We’ll FORCE WIKIPEDIA to REMOVE THE FBI SEAL! That’ll show them, ha ha ha!”

  5. Ken Rhodes says:

    Because of the Third Commandment, the ancient Hebrews came up with an alternate spelling for the name of God, using only silent letters as “placeholders” for the vowels (which were not written), and thus eliminating any chance for violating the Commandment. (It is left to the reader to decide for himself whether they thought they were fooling God by using a code for His real name.)

    I suppose the FBI will next require that we stop spelling out their name, instead referring to them as “the Agency whose name may not be spoken.”

  6. sls says:

    Re Dissent: Wikileaks and Wikimedia aren’t affiliated in any way, so I doubt there’s any particular animus there. If so, then that means, first, that the military and the FBI are both more petty and better-coordinated between themselves than I would have thought, and second, that the result of that coordination is dumber than the sum of its parts. I am optimistic that this is not so.

  7. Dissent says:

    @sls:

    You and Seth may be right, but frankly, I would never underestimate the FBI’s capacity to be petty, nor to go after the wrong party.

    In either event, this is certainly a disturbing threat letter on a number of levels.

  8. Philosopher says:

    The “file” the FBI is asking them to take down is really just a shortcut. Files such as the FBI logo are uploaded to/accessed through Wikimedia Commons – the file on Wikipedia is merely a link to that file. In fact, the file page itself says “This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons” and provides a link to the actual file.