The National Security Agency, the secretive federal department under fire for spying on U.S. citizens, is now accused of crushing the free-speech rights of a businessman clowning around about the NSA.
LibertyManiacs.com, a company that markets “freedom products for liberty lovers,” says the NSA is using a claim of copyright infringement to stop it from selling T-shirts and other products making fun of the Big Brother agency.
“Two months ago the NSA’s lawyers came after our parodies of the rogue agency and forced our host to take them down,” the company said Friday on its Facebook page.
At issue is use of the NSA logo, which was partially altered by LibertyManiacs owner Dan McCall. He kept the name of the agency and most of the artwork intact, but changed the bottom portion from “United States of America” to the laugh-inspiring “Peeping while you’re sleeping.”
Underneath the doctored logo is the phrase “The NSA, the only part of government that actually listens.”
In an interview with online journalist Ben Swann, McCall said, “I tried to visually take the most obvious direction at pointing at them that I could. It was their logo. I just tried to adulterate it a little bit and put a few jabs in there and that will be it. So it wasn’t a huge design coup and it did the job basically.”
After the shirt went on sale, the NSA sent a series of “cease and desist” orders in June, seeking to halt further sales of the items.
McCall commented at the time: “Well, on the positive side I could get the unenviable honorific of being ‘the 1st man to receive a cease and desist from the National Security Agency for telling a joke.’”
The online retailer Zazzle.com subsequently yanked the shirt from its site, giving this explanation:
“Unfortunately, it appears that your product, The NSA, contains content that is in conflict with one or more of our acceptable content guidelines. We will be removing this product from the Zazzle Marketplace shortly.
“Policy Notes: Design contains an image or text that may infringe on intellectual property rights. We have been contacted by the intellectual property right holder and we will be removing your product from Zazzle’s Marketplace due to infringement claims.”
Zazzle’s Diana Adair told WND her company couldn’t comment on the specifics of this incident, but issued a prepared statement saying: “While Zazzle does not manually review all designs that are uploaded, when a product is brought to our attention that violates our terms of service, we take swift action to remove it. We encourage the Zazzle community to use our platform to share their creativity, and we ask that they continue to maintain an open dialogue with us to ensure Zazzle features only the highest quality merchandise for our customers.”
McCall told Swann it wasn’t just one NSA T-shirt that got the hook from Zazzle.
“In terms of shirts, two, and then maybe four or five bumper stickers,” he noted. “Basically anything remotely relating to the NSA was taken down. So I’m not sure if that was subsequently a blanket policy that Zazzle themselves put up because they don’t want to deal with the hassle and they didn’t want to spend time interpreting each thing knowing they would run into problems or if they were plugged into NSA legal and they were watching things as they go.”
He added the NSA’s action is clearly a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.
“First Amendment issues affect everybody and it specifically affects everybody who is expressing themselves – any artist, whether on the right or on the left or in the middle or whatever side,” McCall told Swann. “If you are not allowed to express yourself artistically or in many other ways, we have taken a turn for the worse.”
In a video news report about the case, Swann admitted, “This is a story I had a hard time believing until I looked into it for myself.”
“What you need to know is that because the work put out by LibertyManiacs is clearly a parody, it is not copyright infringement,” he stressed. “According to both the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the American Bar Association, ‘parody is recognized as a type of fair use, like other commentary and criticism, and courts recognize that a parody must often take recognizable elements from the work it comments upon.’”
The case has also caught the attention of Mark Gibbs of Computerworld, who calls the NSA’s actions “monstrously wrong.”
“First of all I’m amazed that any U.S. government agency can get away with claiming violation of ‘their’ intellectual property rights when they are, in reality, part of us, and we the people, paid for said intellectual property. Sure, go after those ripoff artists in England or France should they dare to illegally use the hallowed logos of U.S. government agencies, but going after U.S. citizens for parody?” Gibbs noted.
“Second, I’m even more amazed that the NSA doesn’t recognize the inherent PR problem they have created by a bureaucratic response to something that, given the negative publicity they’re already receiving, can only make them look even more devious and manipulative than we now think they are, which is a brand new realization for most Americans.”
“Of course, even if in reality the NSA has no legal leg to stand on, it is the 800-pound gorilla and can flex its muscles for what is, with respect to its budget, a trivial cost,” he added.
At LibertyManiacs, McCall has referred to executives at the NSA as “jerks,” and he’s not backing down in his battle to sell his merchandise.
He is now marketing the censored shirts and related parody items through another online platform at Cafepress.
In an ironic twist, while the NSA is claiming copyright infringement, the agency itself is allegedly using without permission an image for its top-secret data-mining program known as PRISM.
As WND reported in June, PRISM, which stands for “protect, respond, inform, secure and monitor,” is the NSA’s massive spy program scouring email and phone records.
Its official logo has reportedly been purloined from Adam Hart-Davis, formerly of the BBC program “Tomorrow’s World.”
Adam’s son, Damon Hart-Davis, has said in the Register newspaper that the image is free for use, as long as there’s acknowledgment of the source and a link to the material online, neither of which have been provided by the NSA.
Some Americans are taking to the Internet to say that federal and state government programs paid for by tax dollars are not subject to copyright.
“The U.S. government CANNOT claim copyright. Period,” said Steve Moody. “Anything created by the U.S. government is automatically in the public domain.”
And Ron Lahti noted: “We all need to the raise the bullsh-t flag on this! The NSA is a ‘publicly funded’ government agency. How can they claim ‘copyright infringement?’ It’s like saying everyone who publishes or manufactures anything with any of our other federal ‘public’ government agency symbols is violating copyright laws. Are we going to have every manufacturer and retailer that makes or sells any of our T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, bumper/window stickers, etc. that contains, for example, ‘U.S. Army’ or any other military-service logo, from making these products available just because they have an ‘official’ emblem that is also now ‘copyrighted’ with their design? This is beyond fringe lunacy and seems as the NSA is just grasping at straws, for whatever reason. This action by our government is obnoxiously outrageous, and is nothing more than an arrogantly suppressive strong-arm tactic to infringe on the rights and liberties of the American taxpaying people!”