The Price of Legislation


It's said that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. But what if you have to pay dearly to find out the law in the first place?

If you live in the United States, then you are bound in some way by laws or professional regulations that are publicly enforced but privately owned. Portions of building codes and fire regulations in every U.S. jurisdiction were devised by private organizations, who have retained the copyright to the legislation. Citizens must obviously abide by these laws, or face punishment. But if those same citizens want a copy of the laws that control their behavior, they must buy their copy, sometimes at an impressive price.

How long has this been going on? Actually, for 75 years. But the situation started making news in 1998, when a man named Peter Veeck set out to rehabilitate an old building in Denison, Texas. After Veeck shelled out $300 for his copy of the 1,000-page state building code he was bound to obey, he posted the whole thing on his Web site as a community service. Veeck was soon threatened by the nonprofit Southern Building Code Congress, which accused him of stealing its law. An attorney for the SBCC, Robert J. Veal, recently compared Veeck to Napster. "It's all the same," Veal told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "They've done the creative work, and now someone says, 'I ought to be able to take it because it's there.'"

Veeck, who told the Union-Tribune, "I was brought up in school to believe the law was public domain," hired a confident lawyer and took the matter to court. Legal academics are on his side—more than 30 have filed briefs on his behalf—but the courts aren't. He's lost twice, once in federal court, and once before an appeals panel that voted 2-1 against him. His case is now before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Defenders of privately owned laws argue that, without such things, no one would have the incentive to update building codes, fire-safety regulations, and the like. The construction industry decided in the 1920s to write updated regulations for its work that governments adopted at no charge, allowing such umbrella groups as the SBCC to retain copyright. That group expects to realize nearly $7 million from the sale of its laws over the next decade.

The federal government recently decided to privatize more of its laws as well. As a cost-cutting move, federal agencies have been under standing orders from the Office of Management and Budget for three years to make as much use of privately owned regulations as possible.