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.


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.

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