With the trend toward placing information on websites for the casual visitor to decipher and disseminate, there also comes an inherent danger — copyright infringement.

Now, to the average HVACR contractor, this would probably be no big deal. Contractors are free to put most of the basic information about services, products, hours of operation, etc., online without fear of intruding on another’s copyrighted material.

But let’s say, for argument sake, that you want to tell your website visitors all about a new and improved furnace. You want your visitors to know everything possible about the product, so you download some recent codes and regulations to prove that your product is legal in all 50 states.

Can you legally use information — word-for-word — that someone else created? Better check first.

RECENT COURT CASE

The case of Peter Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International was heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The background of the case, as described by Circuit Court Judge Edith H. Jones, is as follows. (The full case background can be found online at http://pub.bna.com/ptcj/9940632b.htm.)

According to the judge, Peter Veeck operates a non-commercial website that provides information about north Texas. In 1997, Veeck posted the local building codes of Anna and Savoy, two small towns in north Texas, on his website. The towns had adopted the 1994 edition of the Standard Building Code written by Southern Building Code Congress International Inc. (SBCCI).

Veeck had purchased the model building codes directly from SBCCI for $72, and he 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 the text onto his website.

SBCCI is a nonprofit organization whose primary mission has been to develop, promote, and promulgate model building codes. SBCCI encourages local government entities to enact its codes into law by reference, without cost to the governmental entity.

SBCCI continues to assert its copyright prerogatives to publish the codes and license their reproduction and distribution, even as the codes that have been adopted by local entities. The organization insists that it grants liberal permission for copying.

According to the judge, SBCCI’s generosity did not extend to Veeck’s posting of the Anna and Savoy building codes on his website. The organization demanded that he cease and desist from infringing its copyrights.

When the case went to district court, both parties move for summary judgment on the copyright infringement issue.

Finding no genuinely disputed material facts, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of SBCCI, including a permanent injunction and monetary damages. On appeal, a divided panel of the court first upheld SBCCI’s copyrights in the municipal building codes posted by Veeck, and it rejected his defenses to infringement based on due process, merger, fair use, copyright misuse and waiver. Because of the importance of the case, it was reheard by the 5th Circuit Court, and the court then reversed the district court’s judgment against Veeck, remanding the case back to the district court “with instructions to dismiss SBCCI’s claims.”

A HARD LESSON

The case points out an interesting dilemma. When does a law or code become public domain? The “short answer,” according to Judge Jones’ opinion, “is that as law, the model codes enter the public domain and are not subject to the copyright holder’s exclusive prerogatives. As model codes, however, the organization’s works retain their protected status.”

If you want your website visitors to know about the codes you work under in your community, the best advice is to tread carefully. Perhaps it’s better to get permission to drop in a link to another website. It could save you a big hassle down the road.

John Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); johnhall@achrnews.com (e-mail).

Publication date: 10/14/2002