Public.Resource.org, a website founded by activist Carl Malamud, has been making copies of state and local building codes available on the Internet for years, free of charge. As legal authority for the practice, Malamud cites a Federal appeals court decision in the case of Veeck v. SBCCI, where the judges ruled that building codes, once they are adopted as law by states, enter the public domain and can't be copyrighted. The court ruled: "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? Our short answer is that as law, the model codes enter the public domain and are not subject to the copyright holder's exclusive prerogatives."
The same logic, Malamud claims, should also apply to documents such as ASTM standards that are referenced in the building codes. After all, he reasons, if the government can force you to comply with a privately written and published standard, then you should have the right to freely read — or even to re-publish — that standard, just as you have the right to re-publish an Act of Congress or any state law.
But the organizations that create standards say they need to be able to sell copies in order to cover their administrative costs — and that they'll lose that vital revenue stream if anybody who wants to can make the standards available on the Internet for free. So they're suing Malamud's non-profit. The Washington Post's "Wonkblog" reports on the case here ("Should legal codes be copyrighted? Let's sue to find out!" by Lydia DePillis).
Writes the Post: "Three of the country's biggest standards development organizations — ASTM International, the air quality group ASHRAE and the National Fire Protection Association — sued Public.Resource.org in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for copyright infringement. How the case proceeds could have far-reaching implications for the viability of institutions that write the rules, as well as the rights the public has to read them."