You may have seen this:
The NSA seal is protected by Public Law 86-36, which states that it is not permitted for “…any person to use the initials ‘NSA,’ the words ‘National Security Agency’ and the NSA seal without first acquiring written permission from the Director of NSA.”
It’s the statement the NSA sent The Daily Dot in response to a story about these t-shirts with the NSA logo being pulled from Zazzle:
Also, it’s utter nonsense.
Blustering legal threat letters annoy me, with their citations (meant to impress people who don’t read law) masking the shoddiness of the legal reasoning. One telltale of legal bluster is a cite to an uncodified statute—a “Public Law” or a bill—where the law has long since been codified. If you cite to a “Public Law,” you see, your readers are one step farther from being able to figure out what it is you’re talking about.
Never fear, law geek is here.
“Public Law 86-36” was the National Security Act of 1959. Read it, with its subsequent amendments, here. Since we’re looking for the portion of the law dealing with “initials,” search for that word within the page and you’ll find this:
Sec. 15. (a) No person may, except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency, knowingly use the words ‘National Security Agency’, the initials ‘NSA’, the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words, initials, or seal in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.
Now that we’ve got the specific language (about which more later), let’s find it in the U.S. Code. I googled <us code “except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency”>, and found 50 U.S.C. § 3613, which is really what the NSA should have cited had they not been trying to pull a fast one.
You see why the NSA’s quotation of the law is a lie: 50 USC 3613 does not use the language that NSA quoted to the Daily Dot.
The actual language of the statute has two significant restrictions that NSA doesn’t mention. A person cannot use the NSA initials, logo, or name:
a) “in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity”; and
b) “in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.”
If either of those two conditions is not satisfied, then the NSA initials, logo, and name can be freely used.
So this cryptome post, listing what it claims are legal and illegal uses of the NSA logo, is nonsense as well.
The NSA claims that it didn’t ask Zazzle to pull these t-shirts:
NSA has not sent a cease and desist letter to Zazzle since March 2011 regarding a mug they were selling using the NSA Seal. At any time that NSA is made aware that the NSA Seal is being used without our permission, we will take appropriate actions.
Zazzle, on the other hand, told the t-shirt producer:
We have been contacted by legal representatives from the National Security Agency, and at their request, have removed the product from the Zazzle Marketplace.
It’s hard to know whom to believe—is Zazzle ignorant of the law and afraid of NSA; is NSA (which has proven itself mendacious in this case) lying about when it last sent a cease-and-desist letter to Zazzle; are both bending the truth; or are both telling the truth? The last could be correct if NSA had informally contacted (i.e. no “cease and desist letter”) Zazzle and asked them to remove the t-shirts, and Zazzle had done so.
Whatever happened, this reflects poorly on Zazzle as well as on NSA. These t-shirts are not reasonably calculated to convey the impression that the NSA approves the use of the logo; the very idea is laughable. If Zazzle were interested in standing up for the free-speech rights of its customers, it would have told the NSA to go pound sand even upon receipt of a cease-and-desist letter.
Meanwhile, I’ve designed my own NSA t-shirts, which I’ll sell for $18 apiece plus shipping. I won’t be using a third-party vendor, so email me your requests (and cease-and-desist letters):
And mugs, and pajamas, and iPhone cases, and, and, and… ↩