Publishing America's for-pay, private laws - legal piracy

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,

On March 15, Boing Boing kindly allowed me to use this august forum to serve notice on 7 government officials and 10 of the CEOs of the $1-billion/year industry of standards people. The issue was privately-developed public safety standards that were incorporated into U.S. law, but only available by paying big bucks. We asked the government and the standards people to send us their comments by May 1 as to why the law shouldn't be available for all to read.

There have been no such comments received, so today we're making available for public inspection 317 legally-mandated documents, most of why have been previously unavailable on the net. To properly document this open source release, Tim O'Reilly, Jennifer Pahlka, and the 2012 Code for America fellows joined me in an Internet town hall.

Although Public.Resource.Org received no comments from the standards people, this doesn't mean they haven't circled the wagons. Tuesday [today], the Department of Commerce is hosting the CEOs of the biggest standards bodies in a big standards summit. We asked to participate as did a number of other public interest groups, but we didn't make the cut.

Although all these Standards Development Organizations are non-profits, they do quite well for themselves. In fact, the 5 nonprofit CEOs attending this meeting (which is conveniently not webcast and isn't taking questions or comments from the net), the average salary is $633,061. The standards people claim they need the money, but I don't think they need nearly as much as they're making and, in any case, you can't have a democracy if the citizens don't know what the law is. I hope everybody can take a few minutes to look at these standards and make your voice known here on Boing Boing or directly to your government. (This isn't just a U.S. issue, by the way, and we're now preparing a release of public safety standards for other countries.)

If you're interested in other links, you might consider:

* One Man's Quest to Make Information Free (Bloomberg Business)
* Making Laws More Public (On the Media)
* Why building codes should be open

Free archive of for-pay laws


  1. “Standard Test Method for Dissolved Hexavalent Chromium in Water by Ion Chromatography”…. now that is some easy morning readin’.

  2. The entire standards business is paradoxical.  Just off the top of my head I know ISO, ANSI, SMPTE, and the IEEE are among the organizations which charge for printed or electronic copies of their standards.  The money is needed to help finance the standards process.  Yet, the whole idea of standards is for EVERYONE to use them.  To be compatible with this objective they should be available at no or nominal cost.  How should standards organizations be financially supported without charging for copies of the standards?

    1. By the State ?
      With a clever pricing-scheme ? (i.e. dependent on business size, free for individuals)

      That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure these guys can come up with a better solution. 

      1. Absolutely they can come up with a better solution, unless they’re lying about all those science and engineering degrees on their resumes.

    2. Some of those of course aren’t standards organisations but organisations that also handle standards. It makes funding a difficult question, I’m a member of IEEE and pay fees for my membership but that has nothing to do with industry standards.

    3. You might equally ask who pays to publish and promulgate all the other laws? Could that not be the government? Isn’t it one of the most core features of a government that it is responsible for the laws of the land?

  3. Fantastic work. Excellent targeting. While there are certainly many other “plundercrat” private monopolies of public necessities, I can think of few so indefensible as those you are taking on here.

    The old saying about “law and sausages” has found its Upton Sinclair.

  4. I feel like it’s my patriotic duty to NOT obey corrupt, for-pay, private laws unless I’m personally located on the private property of the mansions of the specific people who paid for them.  Everywhere else I’m located, they can go to f’n hell.

  5. It gets worse. You may or may not be familiar with spec sheets, those one-page things that manufacturers write to include in your engineering or architectural documents that ensure that your vendor’s products will be required to be used. Same thing with standards. What’s to stop a manufacturer of certain safety items to lobby the standards org. to require that their products be used whenever a certain type of construction is used?

    It’s a lot like the DSM authors and pill makers working in collusion.

  6. Hmmm…. laws made by unelected officials with no public oversight which you can break without knowing because you do not know, and cannot find out, what they are.

    I am trying to decide – is this more like something from a totalitarian dictatorship, or Franz Kafka?

    1. Definitely Kafka…

      A totalitarian dictatorship wouldn’t allow the (rather funny) mockery of it’s attempts to influence the unwashed masses…

      I mean, can you picture what would have happened in Stalin-era Russia if the opposition (such as it was) did stuff like mock “Ask Lenin” or “Lenin in History”?

  7. Thanks for the strong work!  I didn’t see a torrent link.   Can we get one?  Can I make one and post the link in the comments?  Thanks again.

  8. I can’t speak for other standards, but I’ve been dealing with the National Electrical Code (NFPA) for the last 20 years. New editions are released every three years. There are always new additions; but every code cycle, sections are rewritten, locations of information changed, or articles are reorganized. Many of these changes are adopted for the sake of “simplifying,” but are probably unnecessary.  I’m all for keeping the Code current, but sometimes I’m convinced that some of the changes are made simply for the sake of making changes. Oh, and the first copy I bought personally was the ’93 NEC for $25. The 2011 NEC lists for $82 and change on Amazon.  I understand that costs have gone up since then, but really….

  9. I work in oil refinery design.  All of the standards are developed by the API / ISO standards bodies.  They are also incredibly expensive for individuals to access to the general public.  I completely agree with making them all public.

    1. Indeed. They might allow the public to begin to understand what people mean by “cost of doing business”…  Regulations can, in rare cases, do good.  They can also harm in a variety of ways.

  10. Hell yeah, make the standards public!  Better yet, sic the dogs on them if they don’t.

  11. I posted a link to this on a discussion group and someone came back asking “can you point out a “real example” of one of these documents that was NOT actually “public” before he released them?

    I ask because a friend of mine went and double checked a few of the reference points, and he found a bunch of these docs were in fact “online”, or available with out the fee.  I just want something more concrete as evidence.”For example the National Electrical Code mentioned above is freely available online in several forms… see references at:

    1.  About half the docs were behind a paywall and viewable at all. About a quarter were viewable, but on a crippleware site. About a quarter were viewable in various locations, some more visible than others. The NFPA publishes the National Electrical Code, and that fits in the middle cataegory: they’ve done a good job on their site and we’ve also had it up on ours since 2007 … that’s the two versions listed in the Wikipedia article.

      1. Carl – can you point out a couple of the paywall restricted or non-viewable docs?  That is specifically what was asked of me.  I could try random sampling, but I’m scrambling to get packed for maker faire today.

Comments are closed.