You May Not Be Allowed to Know the Law

The International Code Council is trying to enforce copyright over law2s, which means that people cannot freely read or shore, or(more importantly) understand the law:

UpCodes wants to fix one of the building industry’s biggest headaches by streamlining code compliance. But the Y Combinator-backed startup now faces a copyright lawsuit filed against it by the International Code Council, the nonprofit organization that develops the code used or adopted in building regulations by all 50 states.

The case may have ramifications beyond the building industry, including for compliance technology in other sectors and even individuals who want to reproduce the law. At its core are several important questions: Is it possible to copyright the law or text that carries the weight of law? Because laws and codes are often written by private individuals or groups instead of legislators, what rights do they continue to have over their work? Several relevant cases, including ones involving building codes, have been decided by different circuits in the United States Court of Appeals, which means the UpCodes lawsuit may potentially be heard by the Supreme Court.

UpCodes’ first product, an online database, gives free access to codes, code updates and local amendments from 32 states, as well as New York City. For building professionals and others who want more advanced search tools and collaboration features, UpCodes sells individual and team subscriptions. In 2018, UpCodes released its second product, called UpCodes AI. Described as a “spellcheck for buildings,” the plug-in scans 3D models created with building information modeling (BIM) data and highlights potential errors in real time.


It argues that its use of building codes is covered by fair use. The ICC, on the other hand, claims that products like UpCodes’ database harm its ability to make revenue and continue developing code. The ICC wants UpCodes to take down the building code on which it claims copyright, and has also sued for damages.

The law should be freely sharable, period.

If the ICC does not like that, then it should sue the code authorities making copies of its code, which they won’t because then code authorities would find some way to develop common code without out the ICC looting them.

As an aside, this is a potential application for AI, so for example the section of code from the ICC (Chapter 10, Section 1003.2), which reads “The means of egress shall have a ceiling height of not less than 7 feet 6 inches (2286mm),” could be automatically rewritten to read, “A ceiling height of at least  7 feet 6 inches (2286mm) is required.”

The information (2286mm) is not subject to copyright, just the exact expression is.  (It’s why, for example, the exact text of a recipe is copyrighted, but instructions that are functionally identical are not.)

I either case, I would like to see Congress change copyright law to explicitly make all regulatory code public domain.

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