NSA Silences Critics by Using Claims of Copyright Infringement

Can the NSA use claims of copyright infringement to prevent people from selling merchandise that criticizes them? According to investigative journalist Ben Swann, they are trying to.

At initial glance, the story seems too ridiculous to be believed. This has to be a joke, right? It isn’t.

Many people have likely seen websites that sell snarky political or pop culture t-shirts while browsing the Internet. Well, one of them got an IP infringement complaint for selling a t-shirt with a design that used the NSA name and an image that looked like the NSA logo.

The website, Zazzle.com, frequently features t-shirt designs from a company called Liberty Maniacs. One of the t-shirt designs submitted by Liberty Maniacs, called “The NSA,” features the NSA logo. Except, it has a motto that says, “Peeping While You’re Sleeping.”

Underneath the logo the design reads:

Shorty after the t-shirt went live, it was taken down by Zazzle because the website received a complaint that the product featured content that violated its guidelines against IP infringement from the copyright holder:

“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.”

While it is not clear how closely the NSA is monitoring these things, it is clear that this is a violation of the First Amendment. While the NSA may hold copyright over its own logo, IP infringement cannot be used in instances of parody and there is even legal precedent to back this up.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that parody “is the use of some elements of a prior author’s composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author’s works. Like other forms of comment or criticism, parody can provide social benefit, by shedding light on an earlier work, and, in the process, creating a new one.”

The shirt took some of the NSA logo and used it to form a criticism of the agency’s surveillance programs. The t-shirt design is clearly parody so the NSA has no legal ground to stand on when it claims the design violates IP protection laws.

Check out the rest of Ben Swann’s findings in the video above.