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FBI wants its seal removed from Wikipedia

Letter to the online encyclopedia says displaying the official seal on the site's FBI article is unlawful. Wikipedia says the FBI is misinterpreting the law.

The FBI has challenged Wikipedia's display of its official seal in its article about the law enforcement agency.
The FBI has challenged Wikipedia's display of its official seal in an article about the agency. Wikipedia

Wikipedia has its critics, but now the Federal Bureau of Investigation thinks the online encyclopedia is breaking the law.

In a letter to Wikipedia (PDF) dated July 22 and posted by The New York Times, the FBI demands that its official seal be removed from a Wikipedia article about the FBI because the agency had not approved use of the image.

"The FBI has not authorized use of the FBI seal on Wikipedia," the letter said. "The inclusion of a high quality graphic of the FBI seal on Wikipedia is particularly problematic, because it facilitates both deliberate and unwitting" copying and reprinting of the FBI's seal.

The letter goes on to threaten legal action if its demand is ignored: "Failure to comply may result in further legal action. We appreciate your timely attention to this matter."

However, Wikipedia thinks the law enforcement agency may have misread the law it cited in its letter and is willing to go to court to prove it.

"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," Mike Godwin, general counsel for Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit company that runs Wikipedia, wrote the FBI in response.

18 U.S.C. 701 prohibits the manufacture, sale, or possession of 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 of that agency.

Godwin argues that the statue prohibits the unauthorized reproduction of the insignia on badges and identification cards--not encyclopedia articles.

"The use of the image on Wikipedia is not for the purpose of deception or falsely to represent anyone as an agent of the federal government, Godwin wrote in the letter (PDF), which was also posted by the Times. "We are in contact with outside counsel in this matter, and we are prepared to argue our view in court."