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Liberating America's secret, for-pay laws - Boing Boing 

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Liberating America's secret, for-pay laws 

Carl Malamud at 10:29 pm Mon, Mar 19, 2012 

[Editor's note: This morning, I found a an enormous, 30Lb box waiting for me at my post-office box. Affixed 
to it was a sticker warning me that by accepting this box into my possession, I was making myself liable for 
nearly $11 million in damages. The box was full of paper, and printed on the paper were US laws - laws that 
no one is allowed to publish or distribute without permission. Carl Malamud, Boing Boing's favorite rogue 
archivist, is the guy who sent me this glorious box of weird (here are the unboxing pics for your pleasure). I 
was expecting it, because he asked me in advance if I minded being one of the 25 entities who'd receive this 
law-bomb on deposit. I was only too glad to accept - on the condition that Carl write us a guest editorial 
explaining what this was all about. He was true to his word. -Cory] 

Boing Boing Official Guest Memorandum of Law 

To: The Standards People 

Cc: The Rest of Us People 

From: Carl Malamud, Public.Resource.Org 

In Re: Our Right to Replicate the Law Without a License 

L "Code Is Law" — Lessig 

Did you know that vital parts of the US law are secret, and you're only allowed to read them if you pay a 
standards body thousands of dollars for the right to find out what the law of the land is? 

Public.Resource.Org spent $7,414.26 buying privately-produced technical public safety standards that have 
been incorporated into U.S. federal law. 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. We have started copying those 73 standards despite 
the fact they are festooned with copyright warnings, shrinkwrap agreements, and other dire warnings. The 
reason we are making those copies is because citizens have the right to read and speak the laws that we are 
required to obey and which are critical to the public safety. 

When Peter Veeck posted the Building Code of Savoy, Texas on the Web, the standards people came after 
him with a legal baseball bat. The standards people run private nonprofit organizations that draft model 
laws that states then adopt as law, through a mechanism known as incorporation by reference. 

Peter thought the people of his town should be able to read the law that governed them. But the standards 
people were adamant that the model building codes were their copyright-protected property and that 1 2/03/ 1 9/liberating-americas-secret.html 


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nobody could post this information without a license, nobody could copy their property without paying 
the tollmaster. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, saying that there is a "continuous understanding that 'the law,' 
whether articulated injudicial opinions or legislative acts or ordinances, is in the public domain and thus 
not amenable to copyright." Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress, 293 Fsd 791 (5th Circuit, 2002). 

11. "If a Law Isn't Public, It Isn't a Law" — Justice Stephen Breyer 

Based on the Veeck decision — and a long line of other court opinions that steadfastly maintain that public 
access to the text of the laws that govern us is a fundamental aspect of our democratic system — 
Public.Resource.Org has been posting the building, fire, plumbing, and other state public safety codes since 
2007. For the last two years, we've taken the public safety codes of California and converted them to HTML. 
A group of students in the RDC rural mentoring program have converted the formulas and graphics to SVG 
and MATHML, and we put the whole thing into an open code repository. 

However, the building, fire, and plumbing codes are just a subset of the technical standards that have 
become law. Despite the 2002 Veeck decision, standards incorporated by reference continue to be sold for 
big bucks. Big bucks as in $65 for a 2-page standard from the Society of Automotive Engineers, required as 
part of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in 49 CFR § 571. Big bucks as in $847 for a 48-page 1968 
standard from Underwriters' Laboratories required as part of the OSHA workplace safety standards in 29 
CFR § 1910. 

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. We made 
25 print copies of each of these standards and bound each document in a red/white/blue patriotic 
Certificate Of Incorporation stating that the documents are legally binding on citizens and residents of 
the United States and that "crimi nal penalties may apply for noncom pliance!" 

III. Our $273.7 Million Gamble on Print 

Why print copies you may ask? Frankly, because we're scared and wanted to take a cautious and prudent 
first step in duplicating these legal documents. With a print edition, we are able to limit distribution with 
none of those infinite-copy side effects we know and love about our digital world. Print seemed to be a 
medium the standards people and the legal people could relate to. 

We know from all the copyright warnings, terms of use, scary shrink wrap agreements, and other red-hot 
rhetoric that accompanies theses documents that the producers continue to believe that copies may not be 
made under any circumstances. Those of you familiar with copyright math know that statutory damages 
for unlawful replication of a document is $150,000 per infraction. So, 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. 

Those copies were bound up in 27.9-pound boxed sets and dispatched to 3 classes of recipients: 1 2/03/ 1 9/liberating-americas-secret.html 


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10 sets were sent to the Standards Development Organizations (SDOs) with a Notice of 
Incorporation , stating that comments must be received by Public.Resource.Org by May i, 2012. The 
recipients include the American National Standards Institute, American Society of Mechanical 
Engineers, American Society for Testing and Materials, British Standards Institute, IEEE, 
International Organization for Standardization, National Fire Protection Association, National 
Sanitation Foundation, Society of Automotive Engineers, and the Underwriters' Laboratories. 7 sets 
were sent to U.S. government offices, including the White House, Senate (Senators Grassley and 
Whitehouse), House (Representatives Issa and Lofgren), National Archives, Administrative 
Conference of the United States, Federal Trade Commission, and the Copyright Office raising 21 
points of law and policy ranging from excessive CEO compensation to cahootenizing in restraint of 
trade.The remaining copies have been reserved for public exhibition and legal defense, including 
copies furnished to EFF, the Harvard Law School faculty, two copies for the Mainstream Media, and 
one to our legal counselor, David Halperin. 

Upon the close of the May 1 comment period, it is our intention to begin posting these 73 standards in 
HTML and begin the process of providing a unified, easy-to-use interface to all public safety standards in 
the Code of Federal Regulations. It is also our intention to continue this effort to include all standards 
specifically incorporated by reference in the 50 states. That the law must be available to citizens is a 
cardinal principle of law in countries such as India and the United Kingdom, and we will expand our efforts 
to include those jurisdictions as well. 

IV. A Poll Tax on Access to Justice 

The argument for the status quo is that it costs money to develop these high-quality standards and that it 
is the stated public policy of government that these standards shall be developed by the private sector 
using a voluntary, consensus-based approach. (Having spent a lot of time with these documents, we can 
vouch that many of these standards are very high-quality technical documents. This is important stuff and 
groups like ASME and NFPA do a great job.) 

All nonprofits need money and SDOs are no exception. But, no matter how you slice the cheese, you can't 
do this on the backs of the informed citizenry. Access to the law is a fundamental legal right. 

Do these organizations need the revenue from standards sales in order to keep making high-quality 
standards? While SDOs have come to rely on this very lucrative monopoly over pieces of the public domain, 
a look at their revenue streams and executive compensation levels indicates that perhaps they don't need 
quite as much as they're getting. They all have a variety of revenue streams in addition to document sales 
ranging from membership fees to conferences to training and directed research (often done with grants, 
subsidies, or direct support from government). As 501(c)(3) nonprofits with an explicit goal of making their 
standards into law, SDOs have moral and legal obligations to make those standards that have already 
become law available to the public and in no case can they prohibit others from doing so. 

The scale of these operations is indicated in Table 1, which lists the CEO compensation for ten leading 
standards-making nonprofits. (ISO refuses to divulge executive compensation despite their status as a 
nongovernmental organization based in Switzerland.) 

1. Underwriters' Laboratories 

K. Williams 



2. National Sanitation Foundation Kevin Lawlor 



3. British Standards Institution 

Howard Kerr 




National Fire Protection 

James M. 


$926,174 1 2/03/ 1 9/liberating-americas-secret.html 


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5. American National Standards 

6. ASTM International 

Saranjit Bhatia 2010 

James A. Thomas 2009 



The status quo assumes that the only way to fund a standards-making process is 
'to charge lots of money for the end product. But that is a self-serving self- 

10. The United States of America 

7. IEEE 


American Society of Mechanical Thomas G. 
Engineers Loughlin 

Barack Obama 




2009 $420,960 





delusion The SDOs would actually grow and prosper in an open environment, and they would certainly 
carry out their mission more effectively. They might need to change their business models, but hasn't the 
Internet made the rest of us change our business models? 

V. "Let Every Sluice of Knowledge Be Set A-Flowing" — John Adams 

The Internet was built on open standards that are freely available. Many readers may not realize it, but 
there were originally two Internets. The one we use is based on TCP/IP and was developed by the IETF and 
other groups such as the W3C. But, there was another Internet called Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) 
which was being pushed in the 1980s and early 1990s by the International Organization for Standardization 
(ISO) and other SDOs. The OSI Internet was based on very expensive standards and it failed miserably. It 
was open that won and open that scaled. 

It is our contention that the physical standards that we're posting are just as important as Internet 
standards. By making things like the National Fuel and Gas Code, the standard for safety in wood and 
metal ladders, or the standards for safety and hygiene in water supplies readily available to all without 
restriction, we make society better. People can read the standards and learn, they can improve upon them 
by making searchable databases or better navigational tools, they can build new kinds of businesses. 

Innovation and education are just two of the benefits of opening up this world, but at the root are basic 
issues of democracy and justice. We cannot tell citizens to obey laws that are only available for the rich to 
read. The current system acts as a poll tax on access to justice, a deliberate rationing and restriction of 
information critical to our public safety. That system is morally wrong and it is legally unconstitutional. 

VI. Supporting Materials 

In response to a petition drafted by Professor Strauss of Columbia Law School, the Office of the 
Federal Register is taking comments from the public as to whether they should provide greater 
public access to standards incorporated by reference. You have until March 28 to respond. Please 
let them know what you think! The Administrative Conference of the United States recently 
considered the issue of Incorporation by Reference, but ended up not taking any significant action. 
A particularly strong letter of protest was submitted by EFF. For makers and doers interested in the 
craft of public printing, we posted photographs of the construction of these boxes of in our print 
factory. A copy of the packing slip that was in the boxes, including the Notice Of Incorporation , 
the shipping manifest, and the 7 letters of transmittal to government officials is available for your 
review as a PDF file as is a sample Certificate Of Incorporation . 1 2/03/ 1 9/liberating-americas-secret.html 7/25/20 1 3 

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