The National Electric Code is officially adopted as legal building code in 47 states. It is also adopted by local governments in their official building codes. But to buy a new copy costs around $100. Some say you should be able to download the NEC 2014 for free, online . . . .
The various governments don’t always adopt the latest code version immediately (which comes out every three years), but they typically don’t wait too long.
You can download free copies of the latest version, as well as previous versions, online at certain websites.
But is it legal to download them? This is being contested in court right now. Advocates of the public interest say yes.
I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know if it’s legal to download free copies. If it’s private property, then to do so is theft, which is illegal.
Advocates of the public interest’s reasoning is simple: downloading the code for free is legal because US courts have ruled that laws must be freely accessible to any citizen. Once the National Electric Code, or any privately-published code, becomes adopted by any government jurisdiction as law, it enters the public domain.
Around 1997, Southern Building Code Congress International sued a man named Peter Veeck for publishing their code on his website. Veeck did so because several small towns in Texas had adopted their code as law, but he discovered there was no easy way to access the code, which had actually become law. SBCCI said he was guilty of copyright infringement.
Two lower courts sided with SBCCI, but the United States Court of Appeals (Fifth Circuit) overturned the rulings of two lower courts.
The question asked to the court was “may a code-writing organization prevent a website operator from posting the text of a model code where the code is identified simply as the building code of a city that enacted the model code as law?”
The court’s answer was simple: “as law, the model codes enter the public domain and are not subject to the copyright holder’s exclusive prerogatives.”
Ancient Israel had similar rules. The law had to be made publicly available. Even if any citizen of that ancient nation tried to bury their hand in the sand and run from knowing the law, it was a requirement that everyone at least hear the whole law every seven years:
Then Moses wrote this law and…commanded them, “At the end of every seven years…you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear…” (Deuteronomy 31:9-13 ESV)
But there was another purpose to this law besides ensuring the average people were aware of their responsibilities: it also protected the average citizen by making sure the law could not be locked up and made accessible to only a privileged few. This was to prevent abuse.
NFPA’S LAWSUIT AGAINST PUBLIC RESOURCE
You could say they’re taking the Old Testament approach.
But NFPA is now suing Public Resource. Then president Jim Shannon implied NFPA complies with the law because they make their codes available for free. In a video, he said that they’ve put their codes and standards up on the Internet “to be accessed by anybody who wants to read a code or standard any place in the world.”
But there’s a caveat. “All they have to do,” he says, “is get on the Internet. They can go into our site, register, and they can see any NFPA code or standard.”
His successor, Jim Pauley, repeated the same thing. The NFPA even advertises this on their website: “free access.” Here’s a graphic they use:
“FREE” = NOT FREE
In reality, the access isn’t free. You have to supply information: your email address, first and last names, industry, job function, country, address, city, zip code, and phone number.
As any good marketer knows, this is valuable information that will convert into future sales and profits.
Requiring that this information be required discriminates against users who don’t want to give up their privacy to a private company in exchange for having access to public law. You must agree to receive NFPA’s marketing messages if you want to have limited access to their codes.
What do I mean by limited?
You can’t download a copy.
You can’t print any pages.
You can’t perform word searches.
If you want to look up an article in the middle of a chapter, the best you can do is use the table of contents to go to the beginning of that chapter and then flip through the pages one by one until you find what you need.
It’s so practically useless that it almost forces you to buy a copy.
What this means is that to gain (restricted) access to public law you must surrender valuable marketing information to a private company. And then, once you do, they pressure you into buying an expensive usable copy.
So, if you get your code adopted into law, it seems the government may be obligated to direct thousands of people into your sales and marketing funnel using taxpayer dollars.
We are waiting to see if the governments agree that this arrangement is legitimate, especially in light of the previous court ruling mentioned earlier in this article.
Carl Malamud, the founder of Public Access, is fighting the NFPA’s lawsuit. He’s been doing this for over twenty years. The matter is not yet settled. But this will be a court case worth following.
So, take my advice: until the lawsuits are settled, don’t download any free copies online. Did I mention that I’m not a lawyer? Theft of private property is illegal. We are going to have to wait and see if the courts rule whether the NEC, once adopted into law, is private property or not. They will tell us what we are allowed to do.