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The FBI's Battle Against High-Res

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, August 3 2010

There's a little more to the face-off between the FBI and Wikipedia than you might get from the otherwise lovely piece on it in the New York Times today.

At issue isn't simply that someone might stumble across the Wikipedia page and think that they were, in fact, in the presence of an FBI agent. That might, in fact, be unlawful, as U.S. Code limits the use of official seals in ways that, by implication, might confuse someone into, say, thinking someone's an FBI agent when they're not.

(The New York Times has helpfully posted copies of both the FBI and Wikipedia relevant letters.)

The deeper conflict is one that shares spirit with some of the bigger cases in the digital law field in recent decades, like the 2005 Grokster case in which the Supreme Court held the file-sharing service responsible for people using the tools they built to violate copyright law. Wikipedia didn't just post a copy of the seal. They posted a high-resolution, 2000 pixel across, PNG format, lushly-colored seal. If yer looking for something from which to print off official look reports, for example, you could do worse. That's the crux of the FBI's argument, it seems: that the high-res seal "facilities" wrongdoing, not that it is in itself wrongdoing.

That's not to say that Wikipedia's in the wrong, just that there are more significant issues at hand than might first be evident. Wikipedia, for its part, is laughing at the FBI's argument. General Counsel Mike Godwin -- yes, Godwin's Law's Godwin -- told the FBI that their reading of the law is both "idiosyncratic" and "incorrect." In other words, they're not pulling down nothing.

And for the record, despite the presence of the above seal, this blog post isn't an FBI agent.