Author(s): James Shannon. Published on September 3, 2013.

First Word

IN AUGUST, NFPA JOINED with two other major standards development organizations, ASTM International and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), to file a lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia against Public.Resource.Org to stop it from infringing on our copyrights and trademarks. Public Resource has been copying and uploading our copyrighted standards without permission and making them available without restriction on the Internet. They argue that a copyrighted standard loses its copyright protection if it is referenced in a law.

For the last century, many of the most important standards developed to protect the public have come from non-profit organizations like NFPA, ASTM, and ASHRAE, who depend on revenues from the sale of those documents to cover the cost of developing those standards. This funding source spreads the cost among users and ensures that decisions can be made independent of the funding source. An industry-funded process could not possibly be as independent as our system.

"One of the things we've done, over 10 years ago, is to take all of our codes and standards, which are our lifeblood, and put them up on the internet to be accessed by anyone," says NFPA President Jim Shannon.

By disregarding copyrights on standards, Public Resource threatens not just the long-term solvency of the organizations that develop them but also an entire system designed to protect public health and safety, one that has stood the test of time.

Government agencies at all levels rely on us to provide the expertise necessary to protect the public in many different ways. The technical foundation for our codes and standards is provided by a wide range of experts who participate in a balanced consensus process. Quick and efficient standards development is especially important in a time of rapid technological change. If we cannot continue to do this important work because our funding source is taken away, important protections for the public will be degraded, technological change will be impeded, and governmental agencies that rely on us will be left in the lurch.

All of the organizations in the lawsuit have made considerable efforts to provide public access to their standards. NFPA has been very aggressive in this regard by providing Internet access to all NFPA standards without charging a fee. NFPA’s free-access site does not permit downloading or printing of our standards, but anybody who wants access to our standards can get it anytime, anywhere in the world. We made this leap more than a decade ago because we wanted to go as far as we could to provide free access to safety information, including our standards, as part of our mission to promote safety.

But there are limits to what we can do without choking off the resources we need to keep our process strong. Like the other organizations that have joined us in this suit, we are not eager to spend our resources on litigation. But we have an obligation to protect not just an organization, but also a process that has been a driving force for safety for over a century, one that can continue saving lives and protecting property in perpetuity. We take that obligation as a steward of NFPA very seriously. That is why we felt compelled to file this lawsuit, even though the stakes are very high. We will take whatever steps are necessary to make sure NFPA can continue to do its good work, not just over the next few years, but through the next century.