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 Public Domain?

  Is the Electrical Code in the Public Domain?


For decades, publishers of model codes -- sample laws that a city or state could adopt -- have claimed copyright in their creations. State and local laws and ordinances based on such codes often contain copyright notices in the publisher’s name or some other indication the publisher claims the copyright. In a significant victory for public domain proponents, a federal appellate court found that model codes enter the public domain when they are enacted into law by local governments.

The case came about when Peter Veeck posted the local building codes of Anna and Savoy, two small towns in north Texas, on his website. Both towns had adopted a model building code published by Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc. (SBCCI). Veeck made a few attempts to inspect several towns’ copies of the Building Code, but he was not able to locate them easily.

Eventually, Veeck purchased the model building codes directly from SBCCI; he paid $72 and received a copy of the codes on disk. Although the software licensing agreement and copyright notice indicated that the codes could not be copied and distributed, Veeck cut and pasted their text onto his website. Veeck’s website did not specify that the codes were written by SBCCI. Instead, he identified them, correctly, as the building codes of Anna and Savoy, Texas. SBCCI sued Veeck for copyright infringement. Veeck lost in the trial court, but ultimately won on appeal. The court held that the model codes were in the public domain because:

The law is always in the public domain, whether it consists of government statutes, ordinances, regulations, or judicial decisions.
When a model code is enacted into law, it becomes a fact—the law of a particular local government. Indeed, the particular wording of a law is itself a fact, and that wording cannot be expressed in any other way. A fact itself is not copyrightable, nor is the way that the fact is expressed if there is only one way to express it. Since the legal code of a local government cannot be expressed in any way but as it is actually written, the fact and expression merge, and the law is uncopyrightable.






(Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc., 293 F.3d 791 (5th Cir. 2002).)

The Veeck decision’s reasoning has the effect of placing every model code that has been adopted by a government entity in the public domain. Any person may reproduce such a code, as adopted, for any purpose, including placing it on a website. However, model codes that have not been adopted by any government body are protected by copyright.


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