Monday, April 4, 2022

"Incorporation by reference"

Cory Doctorow has a disturbing thread (rolled up here) on how for pro-fit entities have managed to set up a system where you actually have to pay them to read actual laws. 

These days, he's tangling with the Great State of Wisconsin, where access to the publicly financed manual of jury instructions will cost you $500/year (nothing for a white shoe firm, an infinite sum for, say, an incarcerated person working on an appeal):


And nowhere is the law more closed than when it comes to public safety codes. Across the world – but especially in the USA – local and state governments have fallen in love with the idea of "incorporation by reference." That's when a town council writes in its law books that "The plumbing code of Lower Pigsknuckle shall be version 2.1 of the American Society of Plumbers and Pipefitters Standard Plumbing Manual."

In theory, that's a reasonable way to make safety codes – each town shouldn't have to hire experts to create its own hand-rolled plumbing, electric, fire and other rules. But the problem comes with the standards bodies – generally adjuncts to or offshoots of industry associations – that develop these codes. These bodies are nominally nonprofits, but they still charge fortunes – thousands of dollars – to access their documents (some of that money goes to paying for standards development, but their IRS filings reveal that their top officers also skim 6- and 7-figure salaries from those fees).

Which means that if your plumber or electrician assures you that your wiring or pipes are up to code, you have to spend thousands of dollars to check on them, or just take their word for it. It also means that if you think that these codes are deficient, you have to pay to find out their exact wording, and your neighbors have to pay to figure out if you're onto something before they join with you in pressing the city council to amend them. Finally, it means that everyone who ever pays for a plumber, an electrician or other tradesperson is subsidizing these societies, because the cost to access the law is passed along in the prices that the trades charge to their customers.

The fight to erode access to information has been a relentless, multi-front effort for the past few decades. Copyrights have not only been extended beyond all reason, but we've actually seen works like It's a Wonderful Life snatched out of the public domain. Farmers can often no longer plant seeds from their own crops. Ridiculously broad patents are issued.

Eventually all information will belong to whoever has the best lawyers.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I live in Ontario, Canada. We seem to take a different approach