"Technical standards incorporated into law are some of the most important rules of our modern society. In a democracy, the people must have the right to read, know, and speak about the laws by which we choose to govern ourselves.”
—Carl Malamud Founder, Public.Resource.Org
Our laws belong to all of us, and we should be able to find, read, and comment on them free of registration requirements, fees, and other roadblocks. Private organizations must not be allowed to abuse copyright to control who can read and speak the law, or where and how laws can be accessed. But that’s exactly what several industry groups are trying to do, and they’ve picked a fight with Public.Resource.Org (“Public Resource”), a tiny non-profit founded by open records advocate Carl Malamud . Public Resource's mission is both simple and powerful: to make government information more accessible.
Public Resource acquires and makes available online a wide variety of public documents such as tax filings, government-produced videos, and federal rules about safety and product designs that are initially created through private standards organizations and later incorporated into federal law. Such documents are often difficult to access otherwise, meaning the public cannot read them, much less comment on them.
Six huge industry associations that insist they own a copyright in these laws have sent their lawyers after Public Resource. With EFF’s help, Public Resource has been fighting back against these corporate interests.
Currently, we and co-counsel Fenwick & West and David Halperin are defending Public Resource in two lawsuits in Washington, D.C., AERA v. Public.Resource.org and ASTM v. Public.Resource.org, filed by private standards development organizations (SDOs) that work on fire, electrical safety, energy efficiency, and test design standards. The first lawsuit was resolved. On the second, in 2022 the District Court for the District of Columbia held that most of Public Resource's uses were noninfringing. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in September 2023.
Earlier, Public Resource prevailed in a 2013 lawsuit EFF filed on its behalf against a sheet metal and air conditioning contractor group that tried to force Public Resource to take down a federally-mandated standard on air-duct leakage. The group backed down and agreed to publicly affirm that it will no longer claim copyright in the standards.
The legal consensus is clear: copyright cannot trump the essential public interest in accessing and sharing the law.