Here’s one for the you don’t know whether to laugh or cry file: the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security have discovered and quashed an online shop’s attempt to parody the two agencies for behaving like Big Brother.
The silver lining: Dan McCall, owner of the shop, is hoping to restore his his First-Amendment rights through the courts.
To ridicule electronic surveillance disclosures, he paired the NSA’s official seal on T-shirts for sale with the slogan: “The only part of the government that actually listens.”
He also has one with the sub-heading “Spying On You Since 1952,” and altered the NSA seal to read “Peeping While You’re Sleeping.”
“The NSA and DHS claims there are laws specific to them that prohibit you from doing anything with their logo and we don’t think that jives with First Amendment rights,” McCall said Thursday.
Zazzle, which prints some of McCall’s designs on merchandise, received the letters in 2011. Zazzle informed him of the letters in June and the company said it would no longer carry his items with the NSA seal because they infringed on the NSA’s intellectual property rights. McCall is now selling those items on on CafePress, an online business similar to Zazzle.
According to Public Citizen, the NSA and DHS threatened Zazzle with litigation or criminal prosecution unless McCall’s designs were removed.
The Daily Caller summarized the NSA’s position this way:
NSA’s argument? The products are in violation of the National Security Agency Act of 1959, which includes a broad ban on the use of the words National Security Agency, the letters “NSA,” or “any colorable imitation of such words,” on any product which is “in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency,” without the express permission of the agency itself.
McCall’s lawyer, Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, responded this way in the Daily Caller story: “English law uses an analogy … of a moron in a rush. I would say even a moron in a rush would not think that these seals as parodied by my client were sponsored by the NSA or the DHS.”
This is all doubly painful for me because my wife has a successful Zazzle shop and has been generally pleased with the privately owned company’s management. The sense we’ve gotten is that they’re short-handed from rapid growth and, to minimize risk and oversight demands, have taken a remove-first, ask questions later policy for any copyright-infringement complaints. The problem, of course, is that the First Amendment and generations of court precedent affirm the right to parody trademarked material.
The move to censor McCall has people and institutions right and left upset. The Daily Caller is one of several conservative venues shining a light on the story, while the left-leaning Washington Post also has called attention to it in a piece with the biting title “NSA and DHS: the most humorless agencies?”