The biggest obstacle NFPA has ever faced?
The American system for developing model codes and standards has, over the last century, benefited the public enormously by advancing health and safety. What makes this system truly remarkable is that these requirements are developed by private, nonprofit organizations such as NFPA and made available for adoption to the private sector and the government at the federal, state, and local levels.
Although the development of high-quality codes and standards is costly, organizations such as NFPA don't rely on government funds. Instead, U.S. standards developers fund the development of codes and standards, including staff, overhead, production, and promotional costs, through the sale of the copyrighted documents. The public gets the best the public and private sectors have to offer in protection, and the government is relieved of the burden and cost of developing these crucial materials themselves. And all of us reap the benefit of the standardization that's so important, not just to protect the public but to keep the U.S. economy strong.
That system could be destroyed because of a case that the U.S. Supreme Court is considering taking up sometime this year. The case, Southern Building Code Congress v. Peter Veeck, d.b.a. Regional Web, has already been decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in a decision that flies in the face of decades of U.S. copyright law. See a detailed description of the case in "Anybody's Guess" (Members only**, PDF*, 836 KB) . By holding that any code or standard a jurisdiction adopts enters the public domain, the Fifth Circuit Court has denied the organization that developed that document the exclusive right to benefit from ownership of the copyright.
In its decision, the Court of Appeals suggested that the costs of code development might be borne by the industry groups that use them. This shows how little the court understood how codes and standards are developed in the United States. Code developers, NFPA included, don't look out for the interests of any single group when we do our work. In fact, our rules, accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), require that no group dominate at any point in our process.
These required balances and the other provisions in our rules requiring fair and unbiased processing of all proposals are the key to our credibility as an organization that looks out for the public interest. In adopting codes and standards developed in a consensus process such as ours, governmental bodies achieve uniformity with other jurisdictions based on broad participation of all interested parties.
If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court decision in the Veeck case, this whole system will be severely impeded. In essence, our copyrights, which have been the principal source of the funds we've needed to fulfill our mission for the last century, will lose much of their value. Other, similar organizations on which the public relies will be in the same position.
At NFPA, we're working with these other organizations to make the strongest case possible in the Supreme Court because we're committed to doing everything we can to disseminate the vital information we develop to save lives. We've always made our codes and standards widely and easily accessible at reasonable cost, and we've recently announced major new programs to make NFPA documents available for public review on the Internet at no charge, while still protecting our copyrights.
The Veeck case, which has attracted little attention outside the world of codes and standards developers, could have a very big impact on the lives of everyone in the United States and all those around the world who benefit from the work we do. In fact, the Veeck case could pose the biggest obstacle NFPA has ever faced in our fight to save lives and property since our founding in 1896.
We will keep you informed as this case develops.
James M. Shannon