The Bottom Line on Non-Profits

Recently, I needed to reference an old code to research an existing project our office did nearly 20 years ago.  Not only was it an old code (1994) but one I have never used before, the SBC, the Standard Building Code.
You see, up until about 2000, there were three major building codes in the US.  BOCA, which was prevelant in the East and Midwest.  There was the Uniform Building Code in the West, and as I said, the Standard Building Code in the Southern states.  In 1997, the International Building Code (IBC) was released as a model code that all three regional Legacy Codes (as they were called) combined to create one code for the entire country.  How that makes it “International” I am not sure.  Kind of like the World Series – all the participants are American based teams (Blue Jays being the one exception theses days).  To my knowledge, nowhere in Canada or Mexico is the IBC used…maybe they are counting Guam and Puerto Rico?  By 1999 all of the Legacy Codes ceased to exist and most states adopted the IBC. 

Just some of the books from one edition of the IBC family.
Almost immediately, this model code, one for all states, began printing separate codes for individual states and even several cities, each based on the IBC but just enough different to make you buy a new book.  And some standards groups refused to join, including NFPA or the National Fire Prevention Code.  To make it even better, many states require buildings to conform to BOTH codes.  So another set of books.  Did I mention that most of the books are rewritten every three years?  And there are about nine books needed for a full set.  And oh yes, the publishers of all these books are non-profit groups.

Some of the NFPA family of codes and standards.  They disappear into the horizon.
So to get back to the original story, I was trying to find an online resource for the 1994 code.  I merely needed to look at it for a few minutes.  I didn’t need to borrow it.  So I thought I found it, and downloaded a large PDF, only to see it was locked.  I needed a code to open it.  For that, the ICC (the Non-Profit organization that prints the International Building Code) wanted to have $75.  Imagine my frustration.  How did a 20 year old code rate 75 bucks for a Non-Profit?  Not only was the code old, the organization that created it didn’t exist any longer!  I did some more searching for other sources, and I found a letter on an organization’s web page.  It came up in my search but had very little to do with the SBC Code, except for this:  Building codes and other standards are created by non-profit organizations quite often.  But they are in turn adopted into Law by the jurisdiction requiring adherence.  By definition, a law is the property of the people, and the people must be allowed access to the laws for free.  That is my non-lawyer interpretation, anyway.

They only get bigger.  Editions of the FGI (1997, 2001, 2006 & 2010 bottom to top)
2010 had to be split in 2 volumes.

It is hard for me to believe that these Non-Profits don’t rack in tons of money, much like health systems.  Reading deeper into the letter I found they published the salaries the chief executives of many of the Non-Profit organizations I see in my daily work life.  Now, I am not saying they don’t work hard.  But consider this:  each executive of these organizations makes more than the Chief Executive of the United State of America (also a non-profit entity).

Compensation of Major Nonprots Involved in Standards Setting
Rank  Name of Nonprot Organization       Name of Leader       Year   Amount
1        Underwriters’ Laboratories                 K. Williams              2009   $2,075,984
2        National Sanitation Foundation          Kevin Lawlor           2009   $1,140,012
3        British Standards Institution               Howard Kerr            2010   $1,029,161
4        NFPA                                                  James Shannon      2009   $926,174
5        ANSI                                                   Saranjit Bhatia         2010   $916,107
6        ASTM International                            James Thomas         2009   $782,047
7        IEEE                                                   James Prendergast  2009   $422,412
8        Society of Automotive Engineers       David L. Schutt         2009   $422,128
9        American Soc. of Mech. Engineers    Thomas Loughlin      2009   $420,960
10      The United States of America             Barack Obama          2011   $400,000
(Source:  Public.Resource.Org Letter dated June 26, 2012 – except #10)
We, as architects, often run into issues where a building code official may require us to insert information directly from the referenced standard in our drawings.  This brings up an interesting point.  There are copyright protections written all over these standards.  What would Ms. Clouser, my high school English teacher say?  That is plagiarism.
According to the U.S. Copyright Ofce:
Edicts of government, such as judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar ofcial legal documents are not copyright-able for reasons of public policy.  (Source:  Public.Resource.Org Letter dated June 26, 2012).  This principal surely has to apply to Building Codes as each state passes legislature in order to adopt a building code, doesn’t it?  After a lawsuit against the SBC, the group Public.Resource.Org has been publishing many building codes online as PDF’s. 
So the edge is very thin.  Organizations do spend lots of money to create building codes and standards.  But they also seem to reap serious amounts of dough in book sales while maintaining a Non-Profit status along with the accompanying tax benefits. Once adopted, these codes are law, and by default, the property of the people .
Why should I pay $75 for a moldy old book?  I didn’t have to.  I finally found the actual paper copy in our office, luckily.  But virtually any law, ordinance or criminal code in my area, I can easily find online for free.  From dog leash laws to burning of leaves, I know where I stand.  But for some reason, those laws dealing with building construction and the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the human occupants within, are not readily available to the public.

Update Since the Original Creation of this Article:
Both NFPA and the ICC have since made all of their current codes, including some of the previous editions of their codes and standards, available online at their websites. They are read only, but that is all you need, especially if you’re just looking for an old code for reference.  Three cheers for them!