Want to learn what the law is? There’ll be a charge.

by Walter Olson on August 26, 2013

Should private standards organizations be entitled to retain copyright over building and fire codes when those codes have been adopted into public law? “On August 3, the National Fire Protection Association, ASTM International and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers filed a lawsuit with a federal court in Washington, D.C., alleging ‘massive copyright infringement’ by Public.Resource.Org for publishing codes and standards that have been incorporated into law.” [EFF]

{ 12 comments }

1 David Eggers 08.26.13 at 12:36 pm

Standards organizations spend a lot of effort making codes. Unlike what government makes, a lot of the time the end result is sensible. Selling the codes pays for their creation. The question should be, should government have to buy a license to codes it uses, not should private organizations be forced to provide codes for free.

2 David Schwartz 08.26.13 at 2:40 pm

Copyright is only infringed when there are a large number of equally-good ways to express the same idea and the infringer takes the one the copyright holder chose even though no practical requirements required them to do so. That is not happening here. Changing even a single world in the laws produces a functionally defective work.

Private standards organizations should be entitled to retain copyright over building and fire codes when those codes have been adopted into public law, but Public.Resource.Org is not infringing on that copyright when they publish the laws. The law that is actually in force is an idea, and there is clearly one best way to express it — the text of the law itself. When there is one definitively best way to express an idea, you cannot use copyright law to prevent that idea from being expressed that one best way and force everyone else into either paying you money or having functionally defective works.

3 Bob Lipton 08.26.13 at 3:41 pm

So these regulations are so complex and persnickety that the only way to be able to tell if you’re doing something legal is by paying some one money.

Is the objection that it’s being paid to engineers rather than lawyers?

Bob

4 aaaa 08.26.13 at 4:38 pm

@Bob Lipton As I understand it, the problem is that you have to pay to find out what the regulation is. The regulation may be complex or simple, but you will not know until you pay.

Some would argue that access to the text of law should be accessible to everyone.

5 Bob Lipton 08.26.13 at 8:54 pm

Dear aaaa,

here’s a little law that’s going into effect next year:

http://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/rights/law/index.html

It’s Obamacare. Tell me how it affects my life. In detail.

If I want to know how a law affects me, I can read twenty-thousand pages written in a mixture of legalese and medicalese. Or I can hire a lawyer and a doctor to interpret it to me and hope they’re right.

If I can’t understand a law, what is the good of reading it? If I have to hire some one to understand it, what difference does it make to me who it is?

Bob

6 Mark Biggar 08.26.13 at 8:58 pm

Passing such a law is effectively a taking and therefor the government should have to pay all the royalties.

7 Fubar 08.27.13 at 12:02 am

If I can’t understand a law, what is the good of reading it? If I have to hire some one to understand it, what difference does it make to me who it is?

Paying the copyright holder so you can read it won’t make you understand it.

But without paying the copyright holder, neither you nor your hired expert can ever hope to understand it, because you won’t know what it says.

8 David Schwartz 08.27.13 at 12:30 am

Mark Biggar: When you take something, you don’t have to pay for the value you create. The royalties from people who want to know what the law is would not exist if the law wasn’t passed. So there would be nothing to pay.

9 aaaa 08.27.13 at 8:55 am

@Bob Lipton How does entirely different law being too complex and hard to read validate this law not being accessible without paying the copyright holder?

Plus, you can choose which lawyer you will pay to help you understand the law. There is free market in that. There is no free market in building and fire codes. Codes are government guaranteed monopoly.

And btw, money will not go to engineers. They will go to lawyers and managers too.

10 engineering_codes 08.27.13 at 11:49 am

Just about all engineering codes MUST be paid for. The resolve a customer perception issue, I had to read (all paid copies of) ANSI B30.17, CMAA #74, AISC Steel Construction Manual, AWS D1.1, and AWS D14.1. I read all this to find under a paragraph of relevant text. Armed with a good degree in engineering, previous code interpretation experience, and an ability to read fast I got an answer. Broad experience is mandatory to even begin to interpret let alone effectively use these codes. Did I mention that a lot of Professional Engineers (PEs) drafted the codes?

11 Becky 08.27.13 at 1:09 pm

My public library has current copies of the code books. Work has been so slow, I didn’t buy the last revision, but do go to the library to do research.
I have often thought if it is law, it should be readily available and help in interpreting also. I have seen inspectors disagree about interpretation of sections. I am not an engineer, but a builder, and when confronted with an issue, first read the code book, then talk it over with the inspector as to how he interprets the section or sections. We have a few good public servants in my area who are very helpful.

12 engineering_codes 08.27.13 at 2:08 pm

@Becky. In one particular case, the customer was an oil services company and they applied THEIR welding standards (Pressure Vessel and Piping) to our (decidedly not a pressure vessel) product. What was perfectly serviceable and way beyond any reasonable performance standard, was rejected as not being “cosmetically pleasing.” Knowing the code does not guarantee agreement.

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