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Public.Resource.org Prevails in Free Speech Case Over Publishing Safety Standards

July 9, 2013

Public.Resource.org Prevails in Free Speech Case Over Publishing Safety Standards

Air-Conditioning Group Agrees Not to Claim Copyright Ownership of a Public Law

In a victory for free speech and open government, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (SMACNA) has conceded that it will no longer use trumped up copyright claims to try to stop Public.Resource.Org (Public Resource) from publishing safety standards that have been incorporated into law.  Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Public.Resource.Org is now free to continue its mission of improving public access to the laws that govern our daily lives. 

Public.Resource.Org is a non-profit organization that acquires and makes available online a wide variety of public documents such as fire safety codes, food safety standards, and other regulations that have been incorporated into U.S. and international laws.  Such documents are often difficult to access otherwise, meaning the public cannot read them, much less comment on them.

In January, SMACNA demanded that Public.Resource.Org take offline a federally mandated air-duct standard, claiming the posting violated SMACNA’s copyright in the standard.  Represented by EFF, Fenwick & West LLP, and David Halperin, Public Resource fought back and asked a federal court to declare that the standards became part of the public domain once they were incorporated into law.

After initially attempting to avoid responding to the lawsuit at all, SMACNA has now surrendered and agreed to publicly affirm that it will no longer claim copyright in the standards.

“Whether it’s the Constitution or a building code, the law is part of the public domain,” said EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry.  “We’re glad SMACNA is abandoning its effort to undermine that essential principle.”

In today’s technical world, public-safety codes are some of the country’s most important laws.  Public access to such codes can be crucial when, for example, there is an industrial accident, a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, or when a homebuyer simply wishes to independently consider whether her house was built to code standards.  Publishing the codes online, in a readily-accessible format, also makes it possible for reporters and other interested citizens to search, excerpt, compare, and copy them.

“It’s about time Standards Development Organizations recognized that if a technical standard has been incorporated into federal law, the public has a right to read it, speak it and copy it freely,” said Public.Resource.Org founder Carl Malamud.  “We hope SMACNA has finally learned that lesson.”

For the stipulation:
https://www.eff.org/document/smacna-stipulation-and-judgment

For more on Public.Resource.Org vs. SMACNA:
https://www.eff.org/cases/publicresourceorg-v-smacna

Corynne McSherry
   Intellectual Property Director
   Electronic Frontier Foundation
   corynne@eff.org

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