Crowdfunding Publication of Industry Standards

Industry standards are wonderful things. They help keep us safe in myriad contexts; they promote economic efficiency; they form a kind of “democratized” and rational element to a lot of legislation, typically by being incorporated by reference.

And they’re really rather expensive to consult.

So, according to an article in Next City, Carl Malamud is buying copies of safety standards across the US, scanning them, and putting them online for anyone to consult for free. The folks who develop these standards object. They’ve launched a lawsuit claiming that Malamud is infringing on their copyrights. In order to defend the suit — and, indeed, to finance the purchase of more standards documents to scan and publish — Malamud has turned to Kickstarter to raise money.

Carl Malamud, as Slaw readers will know, is the founder of public.resource.org and a strong proponent of making laws and other important data freely available to citizens online. It’s worth noting that Malamud’s versions of the standards are in HTML in a much more readable format than the online PDF scans purchased from official sources.

It seems that public safety standards, their practical importance notwithstanding, are a hard sell in the crowdfunding world: the campaign is not going well and unless it picks up steam soon, it will fail on Kickstarter.

In the US standards are developed by industry consortia rather than by the government, which adopts the work of the corporate groupings. Here in Canada, standards are the responsibility of the Standards Council of Canada, a Crown corporation. This doesn’t mean, however, that we have free access to our safety standards. Our government sells them to us, and at a hefty price, too. To take the example of portable metal ladder standards used in the Next City piece, these will set you back $111.82 for an electronic copy from the Standards Store, and that’s only Part 1.

This isn’t sexy stuff. But electrical standards, fire standards, building standards . . . these are fundaments of our built society and as such ought to be part of the regulatory data that’s free for all.

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Comments

  1. The problem for both industry and government standards is that they are time-consuming and difficult and thus expensive to establish. So who pays for them? At present, the answer is ‘the users’ – by buying the text of the standards. I believe the International Standards Organization (ISO) largely works the same way.

    What is the alternative? Tax-based funding of industry and government standards? Is that fair, to produce standards that are used by small sectors of society? Can we in practice distinguish safety standards from harmonization standards so as to make one group out of taxes and the other out of private funds?

    Kickstarter (i.e. the people who look for opportunities through that site and process) may be reluctant to fund Mr. Malamud’s copying, but it may also be reluctant to pay for the development of the standards in the first place. So isn’t Mr. Malamud’s enterprise free riding of the most classic kind?

  2. John, I’m sure Malamud would agree that he’s a classic free rider on this. He’s probably doing it as a form of coat trailing to incite just the lawsuit he’s got (unless of course he’s doing a Robin Hood and imagined he could get away with it — something I doubt) in order to have a forum to argue about the pubic interest in standards. There is a fairly intellectually (and morally) messy boundary between the law and the profits.

    As for standards’ being used by a small sector of society, some are more widely important than others, I agree. But I’d bet that a large proportion of our statutes produced in the basic positivist way are directed at or designed to regulate and facilitate small segments of the economy, yet we all “pay” for them with our taxes.

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