Frequently it is useful to reference codes and standards in either questions or answers. However, many (if not most) codes are copyrighted and should be purchased from the responsible entities. How acceptable is it to quote directly from codes here?

Knowing full well that none of us are lawyers, I went over to law.SE and found this answer on fair-use. It basically lists four "factors" usually considered in US law* when judging the validity of fair-use:

  1. Purpose and character of use - criticism, comment and teaching are explicitly considered fair-use.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work - factual information can more easily be considered fair-use
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole - the larger the excerpt, the larger the risk to a fair-use argument. However, one must also consider the significance of the excerpt being copied: if it is "the heart" of the work, it may not be open to fair-use.
  4. Effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work - if the fair-use would reduce the market value of the original work, that weighs against fair-use.

Factors 1 and 2 certainly work in our favor: this is a site which deals with, among other things, teaching, commenting and occasionally criticising codes of factual information.

Factors 3 and 4 I'm more ambiguous about. No single question or answer will quote an entire code, but over time it's entirely possible that the site as a whole will quote a significant fraction of the standard. If one were to compile all the citations the excerpt could be considered substantial according to Factor 3. And if people can just come over here to read up on "any" portion of the relevant code instead of purchasing it, that'd certainly reduce the potential market for the original work.

* While the US isn't the only theoretically relevant jurisdiction, it's probably the most relevant.


2 Answers 2


In general, I think it is totally acceptable to quote small excerpts from copyrighted codes/standards when they are relevant to an answer. Across the literature in the industry, I often see articles with quotes or tables reproduced from code, or the data from the code incorporated into new tables. The general tests should be:

  1. Is the excerpt being used to answer a specific question? We shouldn't be copying random sections of code in an attempt to share it all, we should only be referencing provisions that are directly relevant to the question.

  2. Does the excerpt only include the necessary information? We shouldn't post a whole chapter of a code just to reference one paragraph, but posting the relevant paragraph, and any associated footnotes, commentary, or definitions that matter would be reasonable.

Note that I did not address your items #2 and #4 as tests we should apply. I think that by definition, the vast majority of content in codes is factual, and because it is often referenced into law, it would be hard to argue that they are largely creative works. As long as we are using relatively small portions of the standard, I don't think there will be much risk of causing damage to the market value of the source material. As someone who spends a lot of time researching from code, just because a lot of sentences and paragraphs from a code are available for third party sources doesn't mean I don't make my employer buy a current copy of the codes I use. I don't like spending the time to scare up each reference, and they know it's cheaper to buy the code than pay me to google each provision and read through a bunch of articles. Additionally in our jurisdiction the AHJ verifies that our copies of the code are up to date when they inspect our shop every year.

TLDR: As long as things copied from code are directly relevant to the question and tightly cropped, I think we should be in the clear.

There are some things I think we should probably not do, to be on the safe side of the law and ethics:

  • Post links to illegal copies of copyrighted material.
  • Encourage people to download complete copies of copyrighted material.
  • Plagiarize copyrighted materials in an attempt to skirt these rules. (If something is too big to quote, just rewriting it does not solve the copyright problem and risks conveying incorrect information.)
  • Quote from less factual sources like articles, lectures, or books without making a more thorough analysis (outside the scope of this question/answer.)

For people who are struggling to answer questions while following this guidance, here are a few ideas that might help:

  • Often, older copies of standards and codes are released into the public domain when new ones come out. In these cases, it would be legal and appropriate to copy more liberally from the public document or to link to a complete copy of it.
  • Some standards organizations like the NFPA allow legal free access to their codes in a limited format (eg in-browser reading.) In these cases, linking users to the legal source, even if they have to make an account, is a good way to help them find context.
  • Many standards organizations provide free online articles or trade magazines. These articles often make direct references to codes, and reproduce sections with valuable commentary and context. While this content is still copyrighted and you should be judicious in quoting it, you can link to it.

When I read this question, I first thought that diy.stackexchange.com might have come across this already. I frequent that site for electrical wiring and residential building code questions. Often the questions and answers contain quotes from the relevant codes. The questions/answers on their meta site weren't the most voted on, but they do show some specific answers:

One of those answers also mentions that (in the US) since many codes are law, they must be open. This is backed up by the site https://law.resource.org/. This site has free copies of many codes available for free. (Some are currently blocked pending law suits though).

Taking these couple of ideas together, we should feel fairly safe to assume that short quotes from codes are allowable if the proper attribution (code version and section) are given.


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