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NSA Settles First Amendment Case Over Parody T-Shirt

Author: Joel N. Kreizman|February 26, 2014

The National Security Administration (NSA) has been taking a lot of heat in recent months. Among its lesser-known battles was a First Amendment lawsuit by Dan McCall, who created a series of t-shirts mocking both the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

NSA Settles First Amendment Case Over Parody T-Shirt

The National Security Administration (NSA) has been taking a lot of heat in recent months. Among its lesser-known battles was a First Amendment lawsuit by Dan McCall, who created a series of t-shirts mocking both the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Shortly after McCall put his t-shirts up for sale on Zazzle.com, the two agencies sent cease and desist letters to the online retailer requesting the immediate removal of the merchandise, citing violations of their intellectual property rights. One of the t-shirts displayed the NSA’s official seal with the words “spying on you since 1952.” Another featured a variation of the NSA seal with the statement “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens.” A third included a Department of Homeland Security seal, which had been altered, along with the description, “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

In their cease and desist letters, both agencies cited trademark-like laws that specifically apply to the federal government. DHS referenced a federal statute that prohibits the mutilation or alteration of a seal of any department or agency of the United States. Meanwhile, the NSA cited a law that specifically makes it illegal to use the NSA seal or the words “National Security Agency” and the acronym “NSA” without the agency’s permission.

McCall countered by filing a federal lawsuit, which alleged that his First Amendment rights had been infringed. As set forth in his complaint, “Defendants violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by threatening to enforce 50 U.S.C. § 3613 and 18 U.S.C. §§ 506, 701, and 1017 to forbid McCall from displaying his NSA Listens Parody, his NSA Spying Parody, and his DHS Stupidity Parody, from placing the Parodies on products to identify the targets of his criticism, or from selling mugs, T-shirts or other items bearing those designs to customers who want to display the items to express their own criticisms of NSA and DHS.”

Perhaps not wanting to add lack of a sense of humor to the long list of criticisms it has faced in recent months, the NSA recently agreed to settle the lawsuit. Under the terms of the agreement, the NSA will send another letter to Zazzle acknowledging that McCall’s t-shirts qualified as parody and “should not have been viewed as conveying the impression that the designs were approved, endorsed, or authorized by NSA.” The DHS similarly agreed to stand down, acknowledging that its own allegations were “overbroad.” In return, McCall will drop his suit.

The case highlights that taking a strong-arm approach to intellectual property (IP) disputes is not always the best course of action. IP owners must not only consider the strength of their legal arguments, but also the potential reputation harm they may suffer. This is particularly true in cases where the “big guy” is perceived to be picking on the “little guy.”

If you have any questions about this case or would like to discuss how to best protect your company’s intellectual property, please contact me, Joel Kreizman, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work. 

NSA Settles First Amendment Case Over Parody T-Shirt

Author: Joel N. Kreizman

Shortly after McCall put his t-shirts up for sale on Zazzle.com, the two agencies sent cease and desist letters to the online retailer requesting the immediate removal of the merchandise, citing violations of their intellectual property rights. One of the t-shirts displayed the NSA’s official seal with the words “spying on you since 1952.” Another featured a variation of the NSA seal with the statement “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens.” A third included a Department of Homeland Security seal, which had been altered, along with the description, “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

In their cease and desist letters, both agencies cited trademark-like laws that specifically apply to the federal government. DHS referenced a federal statute that prohibits the mutilation or alteration of a seal of any department or agency of the United States. Meanwhile, the NSA cited a law that specifically makes it illegal to use the NSA seal or the words “National Security Agency” and the acronym “NSA” without the agency’s permission.

McCall countered by filing a federal lawsuit, which alleged that his First Amendment rights had been infringed. As set forth in his complaint, “Defendants violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by threatening to enforce 50 U.S.C. § 3613 and 18 U.S.C. §§ 506, 701, and 1017 to forbid McCall from displaying his NSA Listens Parody, his NSA Spying Parody, and his DHS Stupidity Parody, from placing the Parodies on products to identify the targets of his criticism, or from selling mugs, T-shirts or other items bearing those designs to customers who want to display the items to express their own criticisms of NSA and DHS.”

Perhaps not wanting to add lack of a sense of humor to the long list of criticisms it has faced in recent months, the NSA recently agreed to settle the lawsuit. Under the terms of the agreement, the NSA will send another letter to Zazzle acknowledging that McCall’s t-shirts qualified as parody and “should not have been viewed as conveying the impression that the designs were approved, endorsed, or authorized by NSA.” The DHS similarly agreed to stand down, acknowledging that its own allegations were “overbroad.” In return, McCall will drop his suit.

The case highlights that taking a strong-arm approach to intellectual property (IP) disputes is not always the best course of action. IP owners must not only consider the strength of their legal arguments, but also the potential reputation harm they may suffer. This is particularly true in cases where the “big guy” is perceived to be picking on the “little guy.”

If you have any questions about this case or would like to discuss how to best protect your company’s intellectual property, please contact me, Joel Kreizman, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work. 

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