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United States Government

Liberating the Laws You Must Pay To Read 223

Posted by Soulskill
from the yes-apparently-this-needs-to-be-a-thing dept.
Writing for Boing Boing, Carl Malamud describes the campaign he's been waging to let U.S. citizens read the public safety standards that have become part of federal law — without needing to pay for the privilege. "These public safety standards govern and protect a wide range of activity, from how bicycle helmets are constructed to how to test for lead in water to the safety characteristics of hearing aids and protective footwear." Despite a U.S. Appeals Court ruling which said 'the law' should be in the public domain, many safety codes are still privately produced and then distributed for a fee, to recoup development costs. "Public.Resource.Org has a mission of making the law available to all citizens, and these technical standards are a big black hole in the legal universe. We've taken a gamble and spent $7,414.26 to buy 73 of these technical public safety standards that are incorporated into the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations." Malamud and his Public.Resource.Org foundation are trying — very cautiously — to make these laws more broadly available. "...even though we strongly believe that the documents are not entitled to copyright protection, and moreover that our limited print run is in any case definitely fair use, if a judge were to decide that what we did was breaking the law, 25 copies of 73 standards works out to $273,750,000 in potential liability. While whales may make bigger bets, we draw the line at $273 million."
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Liberating the Laws You Must Pay To Read

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  • by sehlat (180760) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:57PM (#39417939)

    So why doesn't anybody ask about "inability to afford a copy of the law" as an excuse.

    • by GmExtremacy (2579091) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:01PM (#39418019)

      Ignorance of the law becomes quite common when you have a ridiculous amount of inane laws.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Moryath (553296)

        Not only that - if the law isn't so fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away, how the hell are the lawyer vampire class ever going to justify being a drain on society by requiring you to consult a lawyer before doing anything?

        Regulatory capture was invented by the lawyer class. That's why the first thing a sane society would do is outlaw lawyers.

        • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:37PM (#39418557) Homepage Journal

          Not only that - if the law isn't so fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away...

          That's what you get when you allow private industry and corporatist groups like ALEC to write the laws.

          The reason we have laws that are "fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away" is because there's somebody who is profiting from those laws being that way. There is no other reason.

          • by mhajicek (1582795) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:01PM (#39418969)
            I once heard a tax lawyer admit (in person) that he had lobbied for more complicated tax laws to increase the number of people hiring tax lawyers.
          • by AK Marc (707885) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:04PM (#39419003)
            The regular laws are bad enough. I have arguments all the time over traffic laws. Is it or isn't it illegal to "tailgate"? Depends on where you are and the situation. The law doesn't help. And then, there are the laws enumerating "regulations" to have force of law when the regulations are public by definition (tax code, FAA, FCC, etc.). They aren't "law" but are "public regulations with the force of law". But the killer, what they are combating here are the private, copyrighted regulations coded as law. There are piles of laws saying "NEC is law" when the NEC is a privately held item that is not public. The equivelent is if the IRS suddenly said "we aren't going to tell you the changes in tax rules unless you pay us $1,000,000,000 (pinky in mouth)." They lobby for the NEC to be adopted as law in whole, without exception or detail as to the effect of such a rule, then refuse to provide the NEC to the public for whom it is law. Many other building regulations are the same. It helps their bottom line when nobody knows the code and must hire trained professionals to move a light switch (else lose the house with no insurance if a problem happens, or, more likely, an inspector blocks a sale later).
            • > The regular laws are bad enough.

              Agreed. The problem is people are unable to discern between:

              - the spirit of the law, and
              - the letter of the law.

              partially due to crap laws that no one wants to "fix" because there is too much money in the system (as one of your examples points out), it is in a lawyer's best interest to have as many convoluted laws as possible, and people generally don't give a dam about bad laws -- they would rather bitch about sports / music / movies.

              i.e. The letter of the law s

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by NevarMore (248971)

            Not only that - if the law isn't so fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away...

            That's what you get when you allow private industry and corporatist groups like ALEC to write the laws.

            The reason we have laws that are "fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away" is because there's somebody who is profiting from those laws being that way. There is no other reason.

            You get corporations with such an interest in the law because the law started having such a heavy hand in how you do business. If you can't open a simple food stand without getting 5 permits and inspections from 3 agencies you can bet that the entire industry is going to start seeing that as a cost of doing business and start using their lobbying power to either reduce that cost or make that cost profitable.

            • start using their lobbying power to make that cost even larger so no one else can enter the market and provide competition.

              FTFY

        • Not only that - if the law isn't so fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away, how the hell are the lawyer vampire class ever going to justify being a drain on society by requiring you to consult a lawyer before doing anything?

          The hidden "laws" (which is a bad description, what is really privately-copyrighted are standards which are referenced in regulations authorized under law) don't benefit) don't benefit lawyers particularly, who they benefit are the industry groups that make the standards and the f

        • by DRJlaw (946416) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:28PM (#39419345)

          if the law isn't so fucking convoluted and obtuse and hidden away, how the hell are the lawyer vampire class ever going to justify being a drain on society by requiring you to consult a lawyer before doing anything?

          Regulatory capture was invented by the lawyer class. That's why the first thing a sane society would do is outlaw lawyers.

          You* elect the poiliticians that enact such complicated laws and the bureaucracy that uses your ignorance of the laws to do things pretty much how they want to do them.

          Although I deal with 'regulators' on a daily basis, I have only applied the law as written rather than lobbying for new codes, rules, or procedures. Like most lawyers, I'm essentially a guide concerning a subject that people have no interest in learning about until they have a very specific need, and even then are not interested in doing the leg work of learning it themselves. You may as well outlaw tourist guides, reference librarians, and historians. The only thing they do is filter information that is convoluted, obtuse, and hidden away as well.

          *Not you specifically, but the collective you that responds to political pandering and is loathe to acutally think through issues or accept a difficult compromise. [snark]You specifically have failed to think through the lawyer issue, and the second thing a sane society would do is outlaw your ability to vote.[/snark]

      • by Bigby (659157)

        They don't have to be inane. Simply a ridiculous amount of laws leads to forced ignorance.

        • by marcello_dl (667940) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:44PM (#39418689) Homepage Journal

          And corruption. Let a system grow complex enough, and the little guys won't be able to accomplish anything, because they won't have the money, the cronies, or the will to compromise, to make the rusty wheels of the broken system turn. It happened in IT with the introduction of *silly* patents (I have nothing against patenting things that a couple random programmers can't replicate in a weekend).

          Like, say, the byzantine empire, such systems usually imploded, people stop giving a damn about defending it. But now we have technology and such a broken system can go on for eternity because computers and robots don't get demotivated. We may fear computers that get too intelligent, but the problem is with the not-smart-enough ones.

    • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:02PM (#39418025) Homepage Journal
      Considering that the federal government willingly admits they have secret, non-publicized interpretations [aclu.org] for laws, I would say that ignorance of the law (or rather, how it is being enforced) is now the perfect excuse.
      • Considering that the federal government willingly admits they have secret, non-publicized interpretations [aclu.org] for laws, I would say that ignorance of the law (or rather, how it is being enforced) is now the perfect excuse.

        But if you run afoul of those "laws", you still don't need to know them because you end up dead.

  • I really need to catch the next shuttle off Ferenginar.

  • spent $7,414.26 to buy 73 [...] 25 copies of 73 standards works out to $273,750,000

    Am I the only one who doesn't get the math? Or does the judge exponentially impose penalties under copyright protection?

    • Re:New Age Math? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by FSWKU (551325) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:07PM (#39418131)

      spent $7,414.26 to buy 73 [...] 25 copies of 73 standards works out to $273,750,000

      Am I the only one who doesn't get the math? Or does the judge exponentially impose penalties under copyright protection?

      That's exactly what the copyright cartels try to do . 73 standards works x 25 copies each = 1,825 instances of infringement, working out to $150,000 per instance. Considering the MAFIAA likes to say they can claim up to $250,000 per infringement, that's (sadly) on the middle range of what they claim they can demand.

    • by pushing-robot (1037830) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:13PM (#39418237)

      The exact equation for copyright damages is value * num_copies * 3 * ha_ha_ur_a_criminal = more_money_than_you'll_ever_see_in_your_life

      I'd point you to the statute, but you couldn't afford it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:06PM (#39418113)

    Incorporation by reference is one of the tools that private corporations use to get their will imposed through government regulation. It is a shady practice at best, and leads to all kinds of problems with unfunded mandates being exercised on the people, among other things.

    Many standards must be licensed, generate quite a bit of revenue for the private companies that develop them.

    It is true that many standards are costly to develop, but therein lies the problem - if we need them, we should be paying for them once and making them available to everyone.

    This practice should be immediately outlawed, and all regulatory standards should be made open and free to citizens at no cost.

    Here is a listing of all the standards incorporated by reference into the Federal Register:
    http://standards.gov/sibr/query/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.main [standards.gov]

    See:
    - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incorporation_by_reference [wikipedia.org]
    - http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/cfr/ibr-locations.html [archives.gov]

    • Paying for them once? These are all living documents and you are paying for changes from the previous years.

      Many of the engineering codes are useful only to businesses and not individuals. Should the ASME code that governs the design of pressure vessels in nuclear reactors be paid for with tax money? It seems to me that paying for them with usage fees is okay most of the time. The ones that have broad applicability (like the NEC) are very inexpensive (under $100 new, even cheaper used).

      These have to be paid

      • by Cederic (9623)

        . The ones that have broad applicability (like the NEC) are very inexpensive (under $100 new, even cheaper used).

        $100 is a week's food and entertainment for some people. Sorry, for some families. You think that's fair to charge that just so that they can know the law?

        It's the law. THE LAW. Do not demand that people respect and obey it - at pain of criminal prosecution, and all that entails - then refuse to let them know what it is.

        Shit, you want to know what the law is in the UK? It's on the fucking Internet: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ [legislation.gov.uk]
        There. That wasn't hard.

        • The problem is that asking families to pay more in taxes to make the rules for constructing things like pressure vessels at nuclear reactors public is offensive as well. It's essentially a transfer of wealth from the public to the businesses built on these codes.

  • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:09PM (#39418179)

    This is probably done on purpose.

    A large corporation can afford to follow Congressional laws and go buy all these private, expensive standards. Small businesses cannot. It's yet another way that regulations are used by megacorps to protect themselves from new, upstart competition.

    • by saider (177166)

      1) If you are running a business, $7500 for all the standards in the federal code is not a lot of money. You'll spend much more than that on your first month's payroll, or rent, etc.

      2) Most of these regulations are for checking that something is made correctly and won't kill or injure people. If you are a citizen (not a business), why do you need the regulations and standards on how to build something?

      2) You probably don't need more than a few of them for whatever widget you are producing. For example, if y

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        Where did you get the $7500 figure? It appears you are underestimating the costs of complying with the various regulations (such as making sure a banana has 25 degrees curvature, else it must be discarded) the government has imposed. Any one regulation is not a big deal but take all 150,000 pages of the current code, and it adds up to millions of dollars.

        Oh and no I'm not anti-regulation, anymore than I am anti-government. Obviously we need a little of both.

      • 2) Most of these regulations are for checking that something is made correctly and won't kill or injure people. If you are a citizen (not a business), why do you need the regulations and standards on how to build something?

        Are we so far along the corporation = business curve that we forget the role of craftsmen? Any given one of us - me, you - can choose to build and sell something. For some things we may not have the capital to do so, but for something like a bicycle helmet mentioned in other posts, I think I could afford the start-up costs to make and sell them in small quantities. However, the law says that selling them is illegal unless they meet a list of specifications. Except the law won't tell me the list of speci

      • 1) If you are running a business, $7500 for all the standards in the federal code is not a lot of money.

        $7500 won't by all the private standards referenced in the Code of Federal Regulations. The organization referenced in TFS spent that much to by 73 of those standards, which wasn't all of them (they were only a subset of those that are "public safety standards", they weren't all of the private public safety standards referenced in the CFR, and public safety standards aren't the only standards referenced i

    • by hiryuu (125210) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @07:14PM (#39420707)

      That's not always the way it works, though. The following is a bit off-topic, and mirrors something I've said before in some older discussion that I don't care to find at the moment. :P

      I work for a semi-large (>$1B annual sales) specialty chemical and polymer company. We have a dedicated group of people whose jobs revolve specifically around maintaining compliance with the various standards from OSHA, EPA, FDA, etc. They keep us meeting our customers' needs and expectations, in addition to keeping us safe, clean, and in compliance with all the appropriate laws and regulations.

      In our specific industry, there are a small handful of global companies of similar size, and tons of smaller, regional companies (usually privately owned) who are two or three orders of magnitude smaller than the big boys. These companies don't have teams of people devoted to regulatory compliance - often, they don't even have one dedicated person. Likewise, our customers come in all kinds of sizes. Paralleling our industry, each specific market usually has a few big boys and countless smaller players.

      With these small companies - on both sides of supply - there's a significant amount of (sometimes willful) ignorance of the law. Neither the supplier or the customer may be aware, for example, that they're not supposed to be using various chlorinated solvents to improve the performance of the material, which enables them to use cheaper, lower-performance polymers to make, say, packaging coatings or adhesives. We know that we're not allowed to do such things, and that puts us at a cost disadvantage. If we were to do what they do, we'd get slapped down hard because not only are we a big, juicy-looking target for the fairly-rare regulatory review, but since we knew better it becomes a willful violation, which usually bumps the fines up by a factor of ten or more.

      The little fish can plead ignorance, if they even get reviewed, which in my anecdotal experience I've not ever seen happen.

      On the topic at hand, I believe laws should be publicly available for review. I just wanted to comment on how regulatory structures don't always serve to keep the little guy out - often, they're simply more binding on the big guys.

  • by Genda (560240) <mariet@got.nERDOSet minus math_god> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:18PM (#39418327) Journal

    Then we paid for it through our taxes. There is no sane argument to make citizens pay for it again. If the government contracted out the regulation to a private body, then the government should have paid for it and made it free to access for its citizens. If a private body offered to do it for free so that it could influence the nature of that body or regulations, then you best believe that they have already paid themselves and there is no sane grounds for them to avoid making those regulation available for the public at no cost. You can't charge people twice for the same thing (though I know that every corporation in the country is desperately looking at ways to do precisely that.)

    • You can't charge people twice for the same thing

      That's exactly what royalties are all about. Corporations do their darnedest to be in a position to collect royalties and to avoid paying them.

      Your normal wage slave digs a ditch and gets paid once for it. A smart person creates something that can pay them over and over again. If you're not very creative, buy real estate and rent it to other people.

      As far as this topic goes, this is just government being lazy. Rather than create their own working standards, or buy the rights to someone else's wo

  • Malamud and his Public.Resource.Org foundation are trying — very cautiously — to make these laws more broadly available. "...even though we strongly believe that the documents are not entitled to copyright protection ...

    They perhaps should have copyright protection (as, for example, GPL software does), but should have to be distributed under a suitable "copyleft" license.

    • No no, if it's the law of the land it must be public domain. Nothing is more clearly public domain than the law.

  • Standards and regulations are updated on a regular basis by their issuing authorities. If Public.Resource.Org releases these into the wild, then they will be updated, by inserting a single comma, and reissued. This will invalidate the previous versions and force the purchase of a new set.

    It's a good racket.

  • I would love to see local building codes released for free to the public. At least in my city, the only way to get them is to pay around $200 for the book, which expires annually.
    • by DRJlaw (946416)

      Make a public records request for the book. If the copying fees are substantial, make sure to request to inspect, rather than receive copies, of the book.

      In states that have public records laws, the code enforement officer's library is your library, so long as the material documents the 'operations' of the public office. Any code that is referenced by the building code pretty much automatically documents the enforement operations of the office, and is fair game with reasonable notice. In the state where

    • by J053 (673094)
      Not only that, but these building codes are often incorporated wholesale into local codes, even when they don't make any sense. As one example, take the insulation requirements in the IBC - in Hawaii, at sea level, the temperature ranges between ~60F and ~90F (15-32C); we don't need insulation (or heating, or, in most residences, air conditioning). Yet, the County building code requires it because of the IBC. It's ridiculous.
  • In the spirit of patriotic helpfulness, a coalition of Your Friends In Industry has formed to, voluntarily and at no cost to you, write and provide for free distribution an entirely new, 100% cooler, set of standards!

    Replace that pricey, stick-in-the-mud 'ASTM D 3559A' that some 4-eyes loser at the EPA wants you to use with the new American Chemistry Council "Eh, it looks clean to me, what're you so worried about?" testing solution!

    Don't bother with boring old 'FAO Nutrition Meeting Report Series, No.
    • by blueg3 (192743)

      Do keep in mind that for anyone in industry, this documentation does not cost a bundle. The average cost of the documentation they purchased is about $100 each. Cheaper than a textbook.

      • by tepples (727027)

        for anyone in industry

        Not everyone is already in industry; some are joining industry for the first time.

        this documentation does not cost a bundle. The average cost of the documentation they purchased is about $100 each. Cheaper than a textbook.

        And like textbooks, the documentation is often updated into expensive new editions. For how many years does the documentation remain valid?

  • I understand that some places might have special needs, like anti-corrosion parts nearer the ocean, or huricane resistance where there is actually a chance of a hurricane. But, do we really need completely different building standards that change depending on which side of an artificial border you're on?

    Perhaps we need a National Bureau of Standards who keep all the standards, and local governments just pick from the relevant ones? That department would keep a web site, and local goverments could publi
    • by fermion (181285)
      For building, the code is international, published by the International Code Council. You can have you own copy at around $500 a year. If you are building, this is what you need. Each locality is going to decide which of these are enforced, but to know the details you will have to pay cash.

      I assume what the article is taking about is that building codes and the like are made into law, but those codes are not actually written into the law, but included by reference. To me this is a quibble. No one is

  • by Hatta (162192) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:56PM (#39418889) Journal

    These two sentences come from the first paragraph of the court ruling:

    Our short answer is that as law, the model codes enter the public domain and are not subject to the copyright holder's exclusive prerogatives. As model codes, however, the organization's works retain their protected status.

    That obviously contradicts itself. The same text cannot be both public domain and protected at the same time. Why do we have judges who think it is acceptable to issue blatantly contradictory rulings?

    • by SydShamino (547793) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:30PM (#39419379)

      Not necessarily. A public domain work can be taken, possibly edited in slight ways, formatted and reprinted, and the new publisher can put a copyright on it. Now maybe their changes aren't enough for the copyright notice to be enforceable, but in some cases I suspect they would be.

      In this case, the model code, as written by the SmartCode Association (or some other group), is privately owned. However, as implemented some parts of the code are modified, it's reformatted, and the name is changed. The new version published as law should/must be public domain. (When this is not the case, courts should force it open.) However, the original version, which differs slightly from the law version (including a different name - SmartCode 1.0 instead of The Laws of the City of Fairfax, for example) can retain its copyright.

      Of course, if some other city wants to implement the same code, they don't have to go back to the private source. They can look at the law of the city that already bought it, and copy their public-domain law. The private source should have no right of recourse in this case (and if they do, the courts should correct this.)

  • by JustNiz (692889) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:56PM (#39418891)

    So in the US, ignorance of the law is not a legal defence, however you need to spend money to find out what the law says?
    wow.

  • They've copyrighted their method of legal documents indexing and (so-far) staved off any competitors who what to use the index. "If it is not indexed, it is not legal precedent". I am sure the free-form search engines of the world would love to index this material.
  • by holophrastic (221104) on Wednesday March 21, 2012 @03:12AM (#39424093)

    Having started a company to invent and engineer something, I took it upon myself to figure that maybe there might be safety laws for me to follow. With a lot of research, I discovered that in Canada, my device needed to meet radiation and electrical and electrical safety standards.

    I read the public laws only to find that the law said "it must meet the specifications found in CSA document 165a" or some equivalently worded reference. And, of course, that CSA document wasn't free. I said hell no, I'm not paying anything to see my laws. They told me to go to a library. Turns out the libraries only have the old obsolete versions. I said hell no again.

    In the end, we bot hgot what we wanted. CSA let me into their local offices, and to their "library" where they had the document waiting for me, with a paper and pen to take notes. Sixty pages of document and three pages of notes later, I was done and happy.

    So anyone stuck in this scenario, that's the easy way through that I found.

Programmers do it bit by bit.

Working...