NFPA to defend code copyrights

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Saturday, March 1, 2003

QUINCY, Mass. - In a matter that could shape the course of one of the fire industry’s most influential organizations, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing a case that disputes the right of code setting organizations to copyright their consensus-developed material.

Once decided, the case could mean the elimination of the single largest source of revenue used by consensus code developers, such as the National Fire Protection Association and the Southern Building Code Congress International, the developer of the Southern Building Code. Those groups use the fees from their copyrights to fuel research and fund ongoing operations. Texas resident Peter Veeck originally brought the case against SBCCI.

Veeck, who was ordered to take down a copy of the Southern Building Code he had posted on his website, filed a lawsuit in district court arguing that since the code had become law in his municipality, it was a matter of public record and was not protected under a copyright. Initially, a partial panel of judges in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, decided in favor of SBCCI, but in June 2002, the full court overturned its previous decision and ruled in Veeck’s favor, supporting his claim that a copyright on the code restricts public access to the code.

While not directly involved in the potential Supreme Court case, officials at NFPA see this as a direct threat to both its mission, the promotion of fire safety and the financial structure of their organization. The organization has filed briefs in support of the SBCCI with the court.

“We can’t overstate what a threat this is,” said Maureen Brodoff, vice president and general counsel for the NFPA. Standard development organizations “regard this as a death blow,” should the Supreme Court decide not to hear the case or fail to overturn the 5th Circuit Court’s decision.

NFPA officials vehemently deny that the copyrights are barriers to access to the codes, which for the most part, dictate much of the country’s approach to life safety issues regarding the installation, inspection, maintenance and monitoring of fire systems as well as building construction standards for fire safety.

“In adopting the code, (states and municipalities) know that they are doing it subject to our copyright,” said Jim Shannon, NFPA president. “This gives them the benefit of all the work done by us.”

NFPA, along with SBCCI and many other consensus-code developing organizations, follow a development process certified by the American National Standards Institute, a private, non-profit group that administers and coordinates the voluntary standards activity in the United States. The group ensures that the codes are developed through an open democratic process that relies on input from different technical committees as well through an appeals process. The NFPA’s 229 committees hold hundreds of meetings each year, and NFPA also employs a technical staff of engineers and fire experts.

“The use of the consensus method…is a very valuable institution in America, and it’s the way we have developed standards for the past 100 years,” Brodoff said. Without the revenues from the copyrights, it’s unlikely that NPFA and other consensus-code developers would be able to continue its research. States and municipalities would be left to determine their own standards. “As a result, safety would suffer,” she said.

While the NFPA has recorded little to no opposition to the copyright, other fire experts that rely on the code also maintain that the code development process is crucial.

“We support the NFPA code making process, and are very sensitive to this issue because we understand it takes money to make the process work,” said Willard F. Preston III, state fire marshal in Delaware. “The codes are really the backbone of the fire prevention regulations in our state.”

States and municipalities that would try to recreate the work done by the NFPA in its potential absence would find it hard to duplicate the work that the group has already done.

“The NFPA is so entrenched in setting up standards that have gone through the consensus process, for anybody to go through that again is next to impossible,” said Paul Carroll, president of Central Signal Corp. in Malden, Mass. and a voting alternate member of the Fire Alarm Code Protected Premises Committee, one of NFPA’s technical committees.

At press time, the Supreme Court was waiting for the U.S. Solicitor General to submit a brief to the court expressing the views of the United States, which could take several months.