Why everyone in America should have access to public safety codes: "Show Me the Manual!"

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,

One of the big issues we face in trying to make legal documents available to citizens at no charge is a feeling in Washington that "ordinary" people just aren't smart enough to read things like public safety codes. They think charging $850 for a 30-page elevator safety spec or $500 for a water hygiene document is OK because the audience is highly limited.

To counter the "dumb American" theory we hear in Washington, we spent some time out in the field producing a video featuring our local elected officials, the fire marshal, the building inspector, automotive experts, and then went to Code for America to talk to the fellows, Jennifer Pahlka, and Tim O'Reilly, and to MAKE headquarters to talk to Dale Dougherty. The result is a 20-minute video called "Show Me the Manual." I hope you enjoy it!

Show Me The Manual (Thanks, Carl!)


  1. See, now this is something that I can see working really well as a wiki. Call it ‘ConstructionWiki’ and it includes location sensitive connections to everything.

    Under the pluming section you get instructions on how to properly install a bathtub. With links to the pluming codes for your area as well as necessary permits and where to get them.

    1.  That’s exactly the kind of apps that become possible when you break down the wall. Being able to copy the law and put it to new uses is what faced the Supreme Court in 1834.

      Henry Wheaton was the first reporter of the court and he published and sold their opinions and did a great job. His volumes were very handsome, beautifully printed, but pretty expensive.

      When he retired, Richard Peters got the reporter job. He wanted to print a full set of Supreme Court opinions, but he wanted to use new technology to make them way cheaper. He used narrow margins, thinner paper, thinner boards. They weren’t fancy, but a lot more lawyers would be able to afford to read the law.

      The court ruled that anybody could do anything with the law, nobody owned it because the people owned it. If Peters wanted to print cheap editions, that was his right. Nobody owned the law.

      If building contractors, plumbers, code inspectors, realtors, electricians, and residents could all look up the codes and link to specific sections in a ConstructionWiki, that’s exactly the kind of situation John Marshall’s Supreme Court would have  approved of.

      1. You look like a guy in a suit and tie, but really you’re a superhero in an appropriate cape. Never have I heard a suit make so much sense. Thanks for fighting the good fight, particularly for convincing Oregon that they should let me see the legislative statutes.

    1. I think he’s describing more of a portal. Location-aware, choose your topic, see the codes and laws that apply in the spot you’re standing. Drill down, yadda yadda. Something like this could be combined with the notification projects oriented around future legislation. 

          1. I have to wonder.  If I was amazed that a Type I diabetic distance runner was able to achieve so many accolades, would my compliments for his/her accomplishment in light of her/his condition be treated as some disrespect for diabetics?

  2. So anywhere in here did we talk to the standard bodies and ask them why they don’t release them for free?  (Cause I didn’t see it if they did.)

    I mean it makes sense that anyone that has to purchase the codes would want them to be free…  

    I applaud what they are trying to do, but are they going to keep buying new editions every few year?  Because that’s what industry has to do.

    And the whole argument between dumb (diy) vs. professional and the fact ordinary people don’t care about the standards/rules isn’t really fair.  I don’t think the reason that a copy of the national electrical codes costs money has as much to do with the fact that the home diyer wouldn’t understand it as much as the professional wants to maintain a part of their craft to themselves.  Now there are plenty of forums where you can get pretty decent electrical or plumbing advice from professionals who are usually pretty nice about things.  But, I have learned that asking about a diy install of an air conditioner is a pretty sure fire way to get flamed off any board.  Granted yes you need specialty tools, and in the past a license to purchase R-22, but “professionals” act like it is completely beyond the scope of anyone that does not hold a license to comprehend the first thing about how to do it.  Yes you need some more advanced skills, but honestly it’s not that complex.  With that kind of attitude you’d never have people building custom track cars, cause you might need to use a welder and well you need to be certified to do that. 

    (The other ironic thing is the fact most of the major codes are already available in locked down DRM pdfs or through a web portal.  It’s not like it takes much work to unlock a pdf or drop the paywall to a site.)

  3. Is it just me, or is there something very discomfiting and wrong about the sound in this video? Is the lip synch off, or what? It’s so distracting, all I can do is look at their lips and get uncanny-valleyed by the sound that just doesn’t quite match.

  4. This puts a tear to my eye.  Keep up the good fight.

    I know the discussion is mainly on law, but I think this also applies to industry standard specifications.  For example, if I wanted to look up category 5 cable specifications, (common type of cable used for computer networks) why does it cost me an arm and a leg to read the actual ANSI/TIA/etc publication?

    1. Same thing for standards. I’m a technical translator, and standards are invaluable in my job for the terminology they use, but it simply isn’t practical to pay 125$ every time I need to translate something in a specific field.
      The RFC system (used for establishing standards and best practices in the field of Internet technology) works just fine, and RFCs are all free. Why can’t the IEEE-ST, or the other standard organizations, do the same thing ?

  5. Irrelevant, but in the video thumbnail it looks like the man on the right is wearing a jetpack.

    I want a jetpack and the manual, however much that might cost.

  6. I work as an engineer, sometimes on government contracts.  I am constantly frustrated by having to pay big dollars for standards documents I am required to meet by government regulation. I think, philosophically, that standards by definition should be freely available (both the text of the standard and any licensable IP needed to use it). I can somewhat understand why they aren’t free. It is expensive to create and vet specifications. But I think that companies producing standards should bear this cost, because standards benefit them already.

    Government-generated standards themselves are freely available, the problem is US adoption of industry standards.

  7. Can anyone provide a reference to the law governing distribution of these standards?   Is is lawful to restrict the distributi0n of privately issued standards which are incorporated into the law?

  8. As a licensed construction trade worker, I must stress that there is a significant difference between a code book and a “manual.”   A manual is a guide meant to help a user.  Building codes are technical documents meant to limit an installation to an acceptable safe standard.  Those documents are best interpreted by people who are familiar with the style in which they are written, and who are experienced with common, efficient methods for the relevant field.  

    Based on direct experience, I do not believe that the general public can
    normally be entrusted with the leeway to interpret building codes
    accurately and safely without oversight. 

    With all that said – Though I disagree entirely with the premise upon which your conclusion is founded, I still agree with the conclusion.  Public codes should be publicly available.  Charging a high fee does not prevent unadmittedly unqualified people from doing what they’re going to do, and an easily referenceable and citable document would make the enforcer’s task that much easier. 

  9. Look in the front of nearly all published codes and standards and you will see a list of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people that are involved in putting these documents together.  When they are done what happens? They start all over again, making revisions, corrections, clarifications, and dealing with interpretations, which is the tricky part.

    Most of the people on the code committees participate  at their own expense, yet the cost of publishing the volumes of short run code documents is considerable, and the standards organizations that publish them must survive somehow, so the high cost of code books, even short ones seems justifiable.

    All codes are like a network, with one code referencing another. The elevator safety code is intertwined with the building codes, the electrical codes, the fire alarm codes, the plumbing codes, and a multitude of other codes. You can spend a career working with these codes yet still come up stumped as to how certain parts of the code apply.

    It would be nice if somehow all these codes could cross reference each other in some massive hypertext masterpiece, but I don’t know if that is even possible with the frequency of code revisions.

  10.  Well, like the music industry, they’ll need to figure out a way to make money. Information should be free, just like music, movies, art and anything else that can be transferred to the internet. The old model of making money from such things is over.

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