Petition for Freeing “Standards” for Public Use

Brief Summary: Public.Resource.Org, a non-profit that works on spreading knowledge on the Internet for the benefit of the general public, along with a few other concerned folks have petitioned the Government to make the currently pay-walled “Indian Standards” available and accessible to the general public for free. As the petition points out, since these Standards govern the safety and reliability of several thousands of day to day products & processes, there are several unnecessary negative cascading effects that the current financial barrier to accessing them creates. As these Standards also serve as edicts of the Government, the petition submits that as is the case with legislation, the general public also has a right to be able to view these Standards. Aside from this, giving the general public access to these Standards would also be in line with the work of the Government’s work on maintaining and improving these Standards. It is hoped that the Ministry revisits its Copyright policy which currently disallows the free promulgation of these Standards. (Long post ahead)

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Click here to view the petition

Mr Carl Malamud, on behalf of Public.Resource.Org, along with 7 others including Mr Sam Pitroda, Dr Sushant Sinha, Prof Dhrubajyoti Sen, Prof T.I.Eldho, Mr Srinivas Kodali, Dr Vinton G. Cerf and myself, submitted the petition to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution petitioning for the free availability of Indian Standards to the public. Given that the Standards appear to be Edicts of the Government, and that tremendous public benefit that would accrue by such free availability of Standards, and along with the facts that BIS has already digitized all the Standards, and Public.Resource.Org has already put together the necessary online architecture and value-add to facilitate free distribution of these Standards, the petition asks that the ministry helps make these Standards available and accessible to the public, or in the alternative, to modify its current copyright policy so as to allow for this free availability and accessibility of these Standards.

Why Standards?

“Standards”, often unbeknownst to the general public who greatly benefits from it, play a crucial role in ensuring safety and quality of the goods or services that they govern. Once a good or service has been approved as having met the given Standard, it means that that good or service has met the relevant safety and quality benchmarks as determined the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). For example, the “Medical Equipment and Hospital Planning” department of BIS periodically publishes a “Programme of Work” in which all relevant updated Standards for medical equipment are mentioned (but not detailed) to provide the community who require these Standards a convenient tool for being updated on the latest information – though they would need to purchase / lease the specifications from BIS to see what exactly they state. The Drug and Cosmetics Rules also specify that medical devices must conform to specifications laid down by BIS.

Currently the BIS has over 19,000 standards spread over 16 categories including Civil Engineering, Electrotechnical, Food and Agriculture, Medical Equipment and Hospital Planning, Petroleum, Coal and Related Products, Textiles, Water Resources, etc.  As described by the BIS, they have “provided traceable and tangible benefits to economy in a number of ways – providing safe, reliable, quality goods; minimizing health hazards to consumers; promote exports and imports substitute; control over proliferation of varieties etc.” 

In addition to these 19000 standards, the BIS through its 650 technical councils also comes out with over 350 new or amended standards per year. Of these, the BIS Act (S.14), gives the Govt the power to mandate the conformance with a published standard for any product of process of any scheduled industry when it deems it necessary in public interest. In addition to this, a number of regulations, legislations, orders, etc mandate conformance with BIS standards for a number of products and processes. Aside from from mandated conformance, the standards serve as a quality and safety benchmark. Indeed, as BIS puts it on their website, Standardization is the sine-qua-non for the development of the national economy.

However, despite the clearly essential role that standards play, both legally and normatively, their specifications are currently viewable only upon payment of heavy royalty fees (see their prices here). For example, it costs just under Rs 2 lakhs for an Indian buyer to purchase the specifications for standards within the subdivisions under “Medical Equipment and Hospital Planning”, and about 10x more for buyers outside India. It is clear that the easy availability of the specifications of these standards are crucial to several stakeholders – including ones that may not have the means to regularly incur expenses on procuring them – such as journalists, policy advocates, public safety officials, scientists, students, public health activists, etc. Making these standards available are vital to learning about the functioning of medical equipment, improving the delivery of healthcare, or even catching flaws in them. For example, the Indian medical devices market is one of the fastest growing in the world, meaning many new foreign players are eyeing the Indian market to release their products. Public health activists could easily make use of knowledge of Standards, if available, to quality check and rate incoming equipment – and expose those that are sub-par and/or dangerous. Similarly, as Malamud points out in his correspondence to Sunil Soni, Director General of BIS, the Standards published by BIS are also “the best place to learn about the creation of irrigation systems (Water Resources Division), the state of art in fire safety (Civil Engineering Division Committee 22), how to construct a building (IS SP 7), how to safely wire electrical installations (IS SP 30), or the technical details of safe and effective agricultural practices (Food and Agriculture Division).

A bit of Background on the Petition:

In June, 2013, Carl Malamud, on behalf of Public.Resource.Org procured a complete set of Indian Standards from BIS and not only made them available online for public non-commercial use, but also took great pains to retype and process many of the standards to make them more useful to people – including redrawing 202 diagrams in in SVG vector format to allow for them to be resized and cut and pasted into documents by users, retyping and reformatting the entire National Building Code of India (as well as over 700 other Standards) into valid XHTML code so that it works in modern browsers and mobile platforms (E.g., see here), etc.

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However, when he applied for a renewal in 2014, he received a reply stating that his efforts were against the copyright policy of BIS and was requested to remove all documents relating to the standards from his website, failing which legal action would be taken against him for violation of their copyright. In his response, Malamud has written quite eloquently about the need for ensuring these Standards are made as accessible as possible (View their correspondence here). It is at this stage that this petition is being submitted.

The reasons, in brief: 

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Highlighted: One of the coolest line you’ll see in a petition – A benefit of having Dr Vint Cerf’s support.

Some of the reasons for making available the Indian Standards, as listed in the petition, include:

  • Requirement of access to Standards to comply with the law
  • BIS Rules, which mandate that all Standards be published in the official Gazette (currently only names and numbers are published).
  • Fundamental rights include rights to be informed, and not to place undue restrictions on rights of citizens to practice their trade and profession. 
  • Mr Sam Pitroda focused on the importance of access to knowledge as well as the important role of Standards in different sectors of our economy.
  • Dr Sushant Sinha, drawing a parallel, discusses the importance of Open Technical Standards and how they allowed him to create IndianKanoon, a terrific freely accessible online legal database for India.
  • Dr Dhrubajyoti Sen, the Head of Dept in the School of Water Resources, IIT Kharagpur, as well as Dr T.I. Eldhom Professor in Dept of Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay talk about Standards being not only an essential knowledge for those working in the field, but also a vital educational resource for those who wish to take up the profession.
  • In my own statement, I discuss the impact of the various Standards on safety and quality in the healthcare sector, together with judicial and policy reasons for making available these Standards.
  • Mr Srinivas Kodali, a transport engineer, points out that working professionals are greatly hindered by not having ready access to Indian Standards, as such access would allow them to provide better solutions.
  • Dr Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet”,  recipient of 20 honorary doctorate degrees (!), and numerous other recognitions, talks about the importance of Standards being available so as to ensure flaws can be found, with particular importance for security. He gives the example of the Internet protocols that his team created, stating that since it was open, many corrections came from students, young engineers or independent consultants without access to formal libraries. He also points out that creating barriers to accessing standards can allow technologies to whither away due to lack of sufficient participation.

The Way Forward now? 

I believe the Ministry should receive the hard copy of the Petition today. It’s comforting to note that the Ministry only recently held a talk on World Standards Day, titled “Standards Level the Playing Field”, wherein the Minister, Sri Ram Vilas Paswan noted “the adoption of standards facilitates in providing a level playing field to all enterprises, helps them to overcome the technical gaps to reach global markets and to improve quality of life for all.” Also, (as taken from the petition), “[t]his point was further underscored by the remarks of Hon’Ble Sri Sunil Soni, Director General of BIS, who stressed the important role of standards to enable consumers to know important information. As an example, he noted that “consumers should know which washing machine or dishwasher requires less water” and he noted the importance of addressing the requirements of the physically challenged and the elderly.” With the due recognition of the importance and relevance of standards to the general public’s day to day use already being given, we’re hopeful that this petition will be received favourably. Looking forward to seeing how this develops!

You can view/download the petition at the following links:

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