Author(s): James Pauley. Published on March 1, 2016.

The Problem with Free

Standards developers and the importance of copyright protection


IN JANUARY, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updated the information it sends to federal agencies by confirming its strong preference for using voluntary consensus standards, rather than government-created standards, for federal regulations and procurement. In a revision of its Circular A-119, the OMB said that those standards should be utilized “while respecting the copyright owner’s interest in protecting its intellectual property,” adding that “the vibrancy and effectiveness of the U.S. standards system in enabling innovation depends on continued private sector leadership and engagement.”

Standards development organizations like NFPA are in the midst of a fight that impacts the very core of our mission. Opponents say that the output of the standards system should be free, and they would dismantle the private sector standards system altogether. But to get the output that we do—namely, codes and standards that help improve safety around the world—there must be inputs of time, money, infrastructure, production, and many other elements that support this creative endeavor. This work is sustained because we charge for the output. At the same time, we also provide free online access to all of our codes and standards.

Misguided critics typically respond to our process with short-sighted and unrealistic rhetoric such as, “just have the government do it.” In fact, the many government entities that I have talked to are the first to admit that they couldn’t replace what the private sector standards system produces. I can name many examples where the standards system’s “vibrancy and effectiveness,” as the OMB described it, have resulted in codes and standards that have had an immediate impact on peoples’ well-being and safety.

Imagine our world without NFPA codes and standards. Without the National Electrical Code®, electrical installations would be less safe, more expensive, and vastly different from one area of the country to the next. Without the enforcement of NFPA 1, Fire Code, fires would occur more often, resulting in more injuries and deaths. And there are many more examples. To create those codes, we bring together the widest range of interested parties to harness the best knowledge, and we work hard to turn that expertise into usable codes and standards.

It is important that people who value and rely on the results of the private sector standards system respect the law themselves. So before you copy a copyrighted standard to give to others for free, or before you just hit “send” on an email that attaches an electronic version of a copyrighted standard, realize that you are playing into the hands of those who casually say, “everything should be free.”