The Strange Truth About the FBI Logo

If you’ve ever looked at the FBI Anti-Piracy logo and thought that it would make a great deterrent for your Web site or other creative work, think again.

The logo, first announced in early 2004, is only for members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

Unauthorized use of the logo as part of an anti-piracy campaign is punishable by up to one year imprisonment and is considered to be a form of impersonation. In fact, the law is so strict that I can not, comfortably, even display the logo on this this site as Title 18 Section 701 makes it illegal to even be in possession of such a logo, thus why I used a parody logo in its place.

This is, unfortunately, the exact kind of insanity that makes good people distrust and despise copyright law and supports the notion that copyright law is solely for big corporations.

Something has got to change.

The Problem

The problem that this creates is fairly straightforward, it divides copyright holders into two classes: Those who receive the full support and resources of the FBI and those who do not.

Realistically, such a system two-tier system has long since existed on the civil side. Created by the senseless copyright registration system and furthered by the high cost of filing suit, wealthy copyright holders have always had advantages over smaller ones when it came to enforcing their rights.

The logo, however, not only codifies the such a system on the criminal side, but does so in a dangerous and calculated way. Not only does one have to be a wealthier copyright holder to take advantage of this logo, but they have to be a part of one of the select trade groups that the FBI has inked deals with.

Though the amount of money spent creating the logo is likely very small and the effectiveness of it is minimal, the fact is that the FBI has spent time and resources creating an anti-copyright infringement tool and then only offers the fruits of that labor to an extreme elite of copyright holders is absurd.

This is not only unfair and counter to the ideals upon which copyright was created but also perpetuates the image of a “us vs. them” struggle on matters of copyright that has helped to make piracy so accepted in the first place.

In short, the FBI logo not only names “the enemy” but throws the government’s full support behind it. A pair of mistakes that hurts copyright holders of all stripes.

Fixing the Issue

Though a two-tier justice system is a cold reality in most regards, it is rare for the government to so openly codify and nurture it, much less for government to willingly create it.

However, fixing the problem is no small task. There are only two solutions: Open up the logo so anyone can use it or do away with it altogether.

The first solution is a non-starter. Though fair, it would greatly worsen copyright confusion that is already so prevalent as to be almost inescapable. With so many copyright myths already in circulation, letting everyone use the FBI logo would just create more misunderstandings.

Since no actual new rights come with use of the logo, your average copyright holder would have nothing to gain from using it with their work. Letting the general public use it would only create more confusion and further complicate an already difficult copyright situation.

The second solution, doing away with the logo altogether, is by far the best option.

Anti-piracy trade groups have always had the ability to create their own logos and place them on their own works. Though an FBI logo looks more official, it doesn’t carry any additional weight, at least not in theory.

In fact, Webmasters have been doing something similar for years, creating copyright badges that alert visitors that the content is protected. Though the effectiveness of these badges is more than debatable, it is a right of copyright holders to create and post such warnings as they see fit as long as they are within the bounds of the law. There is no need for the FBI to create an “official” logo, much less for them to only allow certain rights holders to access it.

Though the FBI clearly has a role in dealing with criminal cases of copyright infringement, the vast majority of copyright disputes are civil in nature and the responsibility of expressing rights and convincing users not to infringe them has generally been the responsibility of the copyright holder. The FBI’s involvement in that area is odd enough without restricting it to the major players.

Consolation Prizes

To the FBI’s credit, they do try to offer a few gifts to the rest of the copyright holders in the world.

First, they claim that they are “evaluating the licensing arrangements… with a view towards permitting the broadest possible public use of the seal by all individuals and businesses with a copyright interest.”

However, the evaluation seems to be going very slowly as the wording on the page has not changed in over three years.

Second, in lieu of using the actual anti-piracy logo, the FBI does offer an alternative. According to their page, any one is free to use the following text “without FBI approval”.

“Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.�

Sadly, that block of text is all we get from the FBI. Worst of all, the facts contained in the text, at least in terms of practicality, are dubious at best. Criminal copyright infringement requires either commercial financial gain, an infringement worth more than $1,000 in retail or the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial sale.

Though the text is accurate to the law as it is written, it is nowhere near the reality of the situation. Simply put, the FBI will not be investigating your content theft problems and no block of text, or even the original logo, will change that.

Conclusions

Giving certain copyright holders a special set of rights, no matter how limited or useless those rights may be, is unfair. Copyright is supposed to protect all rights holders equally, regardless of how much money they have, what organizations they are a part of and how much profit they hope to gain.

For the government to set aside rights and tools for big-name copyright holders is unacceptable.

Though the FBI may have had good intentions when it started this program in 2004, all it is doing is harming any remaining goodwill copyright holders have with users by giving official credence to the typically overbearing copyright warnings of commercial products.

Worst of all though, it is creating two classes of copyright holders, those who have access to the FBI logo and those who do not. The distinction in rights may be minimal, but it shows a clear government preference for one set of copyright holders.

That, in turn, only creates more discord and fails to serve any rights holders, including those who get to use the logo.

It was a bad idea then and it is much worse now. It is time to cut our losses and end the logo for good.

The Anti-Anti-Piracy Logo was created by Nick Schaffner and has been dedicated into the public domain.

18 Responses to The Strange Truth About the FBI Logo

  1. Francisco says:

    Your commentary is interesting. But I suspect that you wrote it in anger, and in consequence your English is quite confusing.Something else: you are focusing on US law. What about the rest of the world? As in US users pirating from the rest of the World and from the rest pf the World pirating from US

  2. Francisco says:

    Your commentary is interesting. But I suspect that you wrote it in anger, and in consequence your English is quite confusing.
    Something else: you are focusing on US law. What about the rest of the world? As in US users pirating from the rest of the World and from the rest pf the World pirating from US

  3. Forrest says:

    This is incredibly frustrating. My own problems with content thieves are of no importance to anyone beyond myself, and any lawyer I hire. That FBI logo didn’t create the situation … but it’s a jab in the eye.

  4. Forrest says:

    This is incredibly frustrating. My own problems with content thieves are of no importance to anyone beyond myself, and any lawyer I hire. That FBI logo didn’t create the situation … but it’s a jab in the eye.

  5. Will says:

    This is interesting. Especially since the tax dollars of ALL taxpayers support the FBI, I think the logo should be available to all.

    btw… I had no trouble with your English. ;-)

    -Will

  6. Will says:

    This is interesting. Especially since the tax dollars of ALL taxpayers support the FBI, I think the logo should be available to all.btw… I had no trouble with your English. ;-)-Will

  7. JB says:

    Francisco:I wouldn't say that this post was written in anger, no more so than many of my other punditry pieces. The only thing odd about it was that it was written originally two weeks ago and has kept being pushed back and rewritten as other items have come up. If anything, it is a victim of over-editing.As far as focusing on U.S. law goes. There are two reasons for that. First is that I am based in the U.S., New Orleans to be more precise, and U.S. law is what I know. Second is that over half of all Web sites and all of the major search engines are based in the U.S. Thus, for better or worse, U.S. law is the law most commonly applied on the Web.I have talked some about EU and Canadian law on this site, I also write for the European Journalism Centre, where I focus a bit more on European matters, but until the Internet becomes more geographically diverse in terms of hosting and entrepreneurship, U.S. is going to remain the focus.Forrest: Well put. The FBI logo isn't the problem, but it would be nice if our government at least pretended to care about us in this matter…Will: Considering that the FBI has been so generous in ensuring that we've "benefited" from their other programs, it is kind of odd that they'd keep this to themselves.In all seriousness though, you are completely right. If our taxes, in part, paid for the logo, we should be able to use it. That simple.Thanks for the support!

  8. JB says:

    Francisco:

    I wouldn't say that this post was written in anger, no more so than many of my other punditry pieces. The only thing odd about it was that it was written originally two weeks ago and has kept being pushed back and rewritten as other items have come up. If anything, it is a victim of over-editing.

    As far as focusing on U.S. law goes. There are two reasons for that. First is that I am based in the U.S., New Orleans to be more precise, and U.S. law is what I know. Second is that over half of all Web sites and all of the major search engines are based in the U.S. Thus, for better or worse, U.S. law is the law most commonly applied on the Web.

    I have talked some about EU and Canadian law on this site, I also write for the European Journalism Centre, where I focus a bit more on European matters, but until the Internet becomes more geographically diverse in terms of hosting and entrepreneurship, U.S. is going to remain the focus.

    Forrest:

    Well put. The FBI logo isn't the problem, but it would be nice if our government at least pretended to care about us in this matter…

    Will:

    Considering that the FBI has been so generous in ensuring that we've "benefited" from their other programs, it is kind of odd that they'd keep this to themselves.

    In all seriousness though, you are completely right. If our taxes, in part, paid for the logo, we should be able to use it.

    That simple.

    Thanks for the support!

  9. JB says:

    Francisco:I wouldn't say that this post was written in anger, no more so than many of my other punditry pieces. The only thing odd about it was that it was written originally two weeks ago and has kept being pushed back and rewritten as other items have come up. If anything, it is a victim of over-editing.As far as focusing on U.S. law goes. There are two reasons for that. First is that I am based in the U.S., New Orleans to be more precise, and U.S. law is what I know. Second is that over half of all Web sites and all of the major search engines are based in the U.S. Thus, for better or worse, U.S. law is the law most commonly applied on the Web.I have talked some about EU and Canadian law on this site, I also write for the European Journalism Centre, where I focus a bit more on European matters, but until the Internet becomes more geographically diverse in terms of hosting and entrepreneurship, U.S. is going to remain the focus.Forrest: Well put. The FBI logo isn't the problem, but it would be nice if our government at least pretended to care about us in this matter…Will: Considering that the FBI has been so generous in ensuring that we've "benefited" from their other programs, it is kind of odd that they'd keep this to themselves.In all seriousness though, you are completely right. If our taxes, in part, paid for the logo, we should be able to use it. That simple.Thanks for the support!

  10. beux says:

    interesting, i did not know (i live in germany) of such logo and problems with it.

  11. JB says:

    Beux: I hate to say it, but lucky you. Of course, the EU is no copyright picnic either, but at least you don't have to put up with this.

  12. JB says:

    Beux:

    I hate to say it, but lucky you. Of course, the EU is no copyright picnic either, but at least you don't have to put up with this.

  13. JB says:

    Beux: I hate to say it, but lucky you. Of course, the EU is no copyright picnic either, but at least you don't have to put up with this.

  14. andrewwang says:

    Speaking of the FBI:The FBI does not like George W. Bush—Bush committed too many crimes. George W. Bush committed hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism (indicated in my blog). George W. Bush did in fact commit innumerable hate crimes. And I do solemnly swear by Almighty God that George W. Bush committed other hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism which I am not at liberty to mention. Many people know what Bush did. And many people will know what Bush did—even to the end of the world. Bush was absolute evil. Bush is now like a fugitive from justice. Bush is a psychological prisoner. Bush has a lot to worry about. Bush can technically be prosecuted for hate crimes at any time. In any case, Bush will go down in history in infamy. Submitted by Andrew Yu-Jen WangB.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996Messiah College, Grantham, PALower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993 “GEORGE W. BUSH IS THE WORST PRESIDENT IN U.S. HISTORY” BLOG OF ANDREW YU-JEN WANG______________________I am not sure where I had read it before, but anyway, it goes kind of like this: “If only it were possible to ban invention that bottled up memories so they never got stale and faded.” Oh wait—off the top of my head—I think the quotation came from my Lower Merion High School yearbook.

  15. [...] EnforcementWant to use the FBI logo on your site or to protect your YouTube clip? You can’t. It’s only for members of the MPAA. Want to pursue criminal charges against an infringer? It’s unlikely any infringement you see [...]

  16. [...] thought that it would make a great deterrent for your Web site or other creative work, think again.http://www.plagiarismtoday.com [...]

  17. Aidan F says:

    They have changed their policies so that anyone can now use the APW seal. It might be beneficial to readers to include an “update” section acknowledging this.

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