Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Would You Like a DMCA Order with That Duct Tape?

From the time it first appeared, the preparedness website from the Department of Homeland Security,, was a rhetorical disaster. With its cretinous graphics and convoluted prose, the site immediately inspired parodies, such as and Nick Montfort's Recently, they've compounded their gaffes with a new children's page that features a family of mountain lions as the loveable mascots for the site. (See what a person from Southern California who enjoys hiking in the local mountains thinks of that idea here.)

Now the Federation of American Scientists has posted their own website,, which methodically goes through the information design of the DHS site and points out all its stylistic and rhetorical flaws. Unfortunately, according to BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow, the Department of Homeland Security is now trying to use alleged infringement on their trademark to silence their FAS critics.

This case represents a larger, disturbing trend. Traditionally the records produced by government agencies have been considered in the public domain and are therefore not covered by copyright. However, during the course of my regular surveys of government web design strategies, I've noticed trademark symbols beginning to creep into many federal home pages.

This could inhibit one of the last bastions of truly free Constitutionally protected digital speech: political parody. For example, even Julia Lupton's Photoshop send-up of US AID, which mocks the government's branding efforts on the packaging of life-or-death supplies for refugees, could be seen as a form of regulatable communication. The Stop Esso campaign from Greenpeace that criticizes George W. Bush has already ended up in litigation over use of the company's logo, so it isn't unreasonable to fear that government agencies will continue to follow the lead of the private sector in abusing the privileges of trademark to stifle dissent.

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