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Tevlin: Artist’s NSA T-shirt raises hackles, but whose exactly?

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 9, 2013 - 8:38 PM

Dan McCall was just a local logo entrepreneur trying to tweak the government and sell a few T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Then the big, bad National Security Agency stepped in and “targeted” McCall’s company, LibertyManiacs, trying to prevent the production of his satirical merchandise.

Or did it?

That seems to be the question circulating late last week as McCall’s plight got some Internet traction from believers and skeptics, including Salon and the Atlantic Wire.

McCall’s timing of a slam on the NSA couldn’t have been better, as news continues to leak out on the pervasive reach of the agency’s ability to gather data on Americans and foreigners, ostensibly to fight the war on terror.

His slogan was clever. It featured the NSA logo of an eagle with a shield and the words, “The NSA, the only part of government that actually listens.”

McCall, an artist who designs his own products, had a deal with a company called Zazzle to produce them.

Hours after his the NSA satire went up, however, McCall got the following statement from Zazzle (which did not return my messages):

“Unfortunately, it appears that your product, ‘the NSA’, does not meet Zazzle Acceptable Content Guidelines. Specifically, your product contained content which infringes upon the intellectual property rights of National Security Agency.

“We have been contacted by legal representatives from the National Security Agency, and at their request, have removed the product from the Zazzle Marketplace.”

Seriously? Was the NSA really concerned about a Minnesota T-shirt artist?

On Monday, Marci Green Miller, a spokesperson for the NSA, responded to my e-mail questions by citing law that protects the agency’s logo from someone claiming their product is approved or endorsed by the NSA.

“I can tell you that NSA has NOT sent a [cease-and-desist] letter since 2011 to Zazzle,” Miller wrote. “If NSA believes the NSA Seal is being used without our permission, we will take appropriate actions.”

McCall said that the NSA could be playing semantic games and that they sent something called a “takedown notice” instead. Miller did not respond to questions whether there had been any threatening correspondence between the agency and Zazzle.

“There can’t be a reasonable calculation to convey endorsement or approval by the NSA for a parody of them,” McCall said. “The whole point of a logo parody is subversion of an entity by the adulteration of their logo mark to make a critical statement about them. Rhetorical patty-cake in my view.”

Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, agrees. “This is somewhere between annoying and ridiculous,” said Anfinson. “It’s doubtful in the first place a government agency can claim copyrights on their own logo. It’s not just about fair use, it’s about free speech. You think this helps their public image right now? It’s too typical.”

The NSA admitting that it was going after a Sauk Rapids artist and T-shirt peddler probably wouldn’t play too well, given the almost weekly revelations about the agency’s activities.

“They’ve had some pretty rough news cycles lately,” said McCall. “The reason there has been some interest in this at all is because it seems so petty and silly.”

McCall, an art major at the University of Minnesota and then St. Cloud State, started his business (libertymaniacs.com) about 10 years ago and runs it with his wife, Mandy. While he calls the graphic work “multipartisan,” it tends to lean conservative and libertarian. McCall said he’s bounced around the political spectrum and doesn’t seem to be particularly zealous. Just a guy who wants to do cool artwork and sell it on T-shirts and mugs.

He said that he recently took his anti-NSA satire to CafePress, and it now includes tote bags, key chains and hats. The T-shirt is a top seller. To his knowledge, they have not had any complaints from the agency.

“Right now, it’s just speculation” on whether he’s being targeted or if Zazzle was just being overly cautious.

As for critics who doubt the government would really give a rip about a Minnesota artist, he said: “I hope they are right. If not, it’s kind of going to ruin my business model.”

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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