The National Security Agency can shut you down if you create a funny T-shirt bearing the agency's logo because it's technically against the law. They usually don't do that, though, because they have bigger fish to fry. One online T-shirt market place has been shutting down NSA products left and right, claiming legal intervention from the agency, when in reality the NSA could care less.
Dan McCall is a longtime Zazzle store owner who started printing NSA-branded merchandise in the immediate wake of the NSA scandal. Zazzle is an open marketplace where people can sell T-shirts and other products online. McCall started off modestly with just a few T-shirts and bumper stickers. Each piece had the NSA logo with a clever, obviously fake slogan underneath it.
But the Zazzle team wasn't a fan, apparently, and they removed McCall's NSA-themed products from the marketplace. Zazzle said the products, "contained content which infringes upon the intellectual property rights of National Security Agency," and claimed they were contacted by NSA lawyers. Frustrated and upset with the service he used for five years, McCall packed up shop and moved all of his products to Cafepress. He's since started selling stickers, shot glasses, aprons, gym bags, iPad cases, among other things, with the NSA logo on them. Quite successfully, mind you.
McCall's ordeal played out almost identically to Gawker writer Max Read's attempt to market and sell T-shirts with NSA-related logos through Zazzle. Read made a few T-shirts and mugs with the PRISM logo shortly after the scandal first broke. But, almost immediately, Zazzle removed the products because Read was allegedly violating intellectual property rights. At the time, Zazzle didn't explicitly acknowledge getting contacted by NSA lawyers. Zazzle claimed they received word from the "intellectual property right holder" that Read's products were breaking the law. So there was some mystery afoot but, really, who else would make the call?
One thing apparently became clear: the NSA really hates funny shirts. That, and the use of its logos on funny T-shirts. But the agency never directly commented on the shirt scandals until Friday, when they sent two separate statements to the Daily Dot clarifying their position. The first statement:
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.”
Right, right, right. A pretty standard explanation of how the T-shirts violate the law. But then the second message came, and threw the entire story on its head:
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.
So... it wasn't the NSA after all? They haven't been paying attention to Zazzle stores this whole time? Frankly, I'm shocked. Zazzle has not, so far, explained why they're so afraid of the NSA logo. The agency hasn't contacted them in over two years, and they claimed (twice!) that the NSA called directly within the last six months.
Go forth, young entrepreneurs, and make as many NSA-branded products as you feel. You, too, can look fresh if the feds are watching.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.