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Lying, prying and spying: Is the NSA worth it?

Is the NSA defending their intellectual property with more success than they protect our country?

Backspin By , Network World
June 14, 2013 02:00 PM ET
Gibbs

Network World - "People in power hate it when you shine a light on what it is they do. They’re like cockroaches, they like to operate in the dark.” - Glenn Greenwald, author of The Guardian NSA monitoring story

LibertyManiacs.com Facebook timeline photos
Credit: LibertyManiacs.com Facebook timeline photos

The image above was posted on Facebook by LibertyManiacs.com, a company that sells T-shirts and such emblazoned with witty political messages. The story behind the NSA "ban" is that LibertyManiacs was selling a T-shirt with the NSA logo and the legend "The NSA, The only part of the government that listens" through Zazzle, an online printing company and ecommerce platform.

On June 7 Zazzle was sent a "cease and desist" order by the NSA's representatives and, according to LibertyManiacs's founder, Dan McCall, Zazzle was told they could no longer print that design as "the parody violates the intellectual property rights of the National Security Agency." 

[ALSO: How to opt out of the NSA's spying program]

Dan commented: "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.'"

Alas, the NSA still isn't finding Dan's products at all funny, and at just after 5 p.m. Pacific on Thursday, June 13, Dan posted to Facebook, "[The] jerks at the NSA have expanded their attack on my 1st Amendment rights by going after more of my stuff. More cease and desists. More products and designs. This is getting hilarious." This is a use of the word "hilarious" I wasn't previously aware of.

What is intriguing is the NSA admitted the first product banned was a parody, which means it is "protected from claims by the copyright owner of the original work under the fair use doctrine, which is codified in 17 U.S.C. § 107".

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. As a consequence, if Dan's going to get them to back off and start selling those products again, he's going to have to spend a lot of money with lawyers.

This is, whichever way you look at it, 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?

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.

Let's be clear, as I wrote last week, no one who has paid even the slightest attention to political and technology news over the last few years could be surprised at the revelations of the NSA's secret surveillance programs. The NSA's history of intelligence activities goes back to 1952 and we know that over that period the agency didn't sit around twiddling its thumbs.

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