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Canada Post Files Copyright Lawsuit Over Crowdsourced Postal Code Database

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Friday April 13, 2012
Canada Post has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Geolytica, which operates GeoCoder.ca, a website that provides several geocoding services including free access to a crowdsourced compiled database of Canadian postal codes. Canada Post argues that it is the exclusive copyright holder of all Canadian postal codes and claims that GeoCoder appropriated the database and made unauthorized reproductions.

GeoCoder, which is being represented by CIPPIC, filed its statement of defence yesterday (I am on the CIPPIC Advisory Board but have not been involved in the case other than providing a referral to CIPPIC when contacted by GeoCoder's founder). The defence explains how GeoCoder managed to compile a postal code database by using crowdsource techniques without any reliance on Canada Post's database. The site created street address look-up service in 2004 with users often including a postal code within their query. The site retained the postal code information and gradually developed its own database with the postal codes (a system not unlike many marketers that similarly develop databases by compiling this information). The company notes that it has provided access to the information for free for the last eight years and that it is used by many NGOs for advocacy purposes.

While GeoCoder makes for a fascinating case study on generating crowdsourced information, the legal issues raised by the case should attract widespread attention. Key issues include whether there is any copyright in postal codes (GeoCoder argues that postal codes are facts that are not subject to copyright, noting to conclude otherwise would result in "copyright infringement on a massive, near-universal scale"), questions on whether Canada Post owns copyright in the database if there is copyright (Canada Post relies on a section in the Canada Post Corporation Act that does not appear to exist), and a denial that the crowdsourced version of the database - independently created by GeoCoder - infringes the copyright of the Canada Post database. 

Moreover, the defence also raises copyright claims such as the public interest ("to allow copyright to restrict the ability of Canadians to distribute, collect and aggregate their postal codes – which is all Geolytica has done – would have severely detrimental consequences for the public interest"), copyright misuse ("Canada Post Corporation's over-broad copyright claims demonstrates its practice of anti-competitively asserting monopoly over Canada's postal code system"), and the prospect that the Canada Post claim is statute-barred.

The case could certainly generate some notable intervenors. For marketers that have independently developed and marketed their own databases that include postal code information, they could face similar copyright claims by Canada Post and may need to support GeoCoder. Given the government's emphasis on open data, the federal government may have something to say about Canada Post's efforts to restrict public compilation and distribution of postal code information. Moreover, with many groups relying on GeoCoder's information for affordable access to postal code data to engage in political advocacy, Canadian courts may hear why ensuring continued access to GeoCoder's compiled data is in the public interest.
Comments (38)add comment

Ki said:

...
...How are postal codes something that can be copyrighted? I mean, I could I guess understand of they made an exact copy of Canada Posts database (which makes me question why Canada Post's IT security would be low enough to allow that) it being a copyright issues, but just compiling a list of postal codes doesn't seem like it's something that would be copyrighted.
April 13, 2012

pat donovan said:

insanity

welcome to the swarm.

The region one censorship zone now includes swarming as a legal tactic... superious lawsuits designed to big momma s'mother anything they haven't monetized.

included is the cbc's free music site, postal codes, bus schedules, and the freedom of information.

datasets, data bases, data uses.

your ankles, citizen. grab them.

packrat

April 13, 2012

Devil's Advocate said:

Postal Codes are simply DATA...
Canada Post may have created the Postal Code system and assigned these codes to our addresses for their purposes, but all they've done is ADD another field of DATA to the process.

And, as far as I know, it's always been perfectly acceptable to create all sorts of services indexing databases with the names of people, companies, street addresses, cities, etc. Though some of them may be a point of contention for PRIVACY, they're not a COPYRIGHT issue.

Canada Post is out to lunch on this one.
April 13, 2012

Andrew said:

This is ridiculous.
You can't copyright postal codes. That's just stupid. Somebody at Canada Post needs to have their head smacked into a brick wall, especially considering the federal governments supposed "commitment" to open data.
April 13, 2012

Ad said:

...
So if I compiled a customer-created list of telephone-numbers, would the local phone company be able to sue me?
April 13, 2012

CW said:

...
"...
So if I compiled a customer-created list of telephone-numbers, would the local phone company be able to sue me? "

Oh man . . . DON'T GIVE THEM IDEAS LIKE THAT.
April 13, 2012

Chris Brand said:

Does every letter infringe ?
If postcodes are copyrightable, then every time we write them on a letter, wouldn't that be infringement ?

Surely Canada Post has more important things to do...
April 13, 2012

Anon-K said:

A tough call...
Had such a claim been asserted when Canada Post first introduced the Postal Code, then I could see it. However, its been so long, and there's been so many other, non-postal uses of the data where copyright was not asserted, that I would argue that they've either given up the claim or deserve only a nod that the system was set up by them.
April 13, 2012

Jeff said:

absurd
This suit has no chance of success unless there was actual copying of the Canada Post database. The suggestion that anyone "owns" the nation's postal codes is absurd.
April 13, 2012

Ray Saintonge said:

...
We need more stupid lawsuits like this. They help to bring these issues into the light of day, thus clarifying issues and creaating precedents for those circumstances where the amount of mooney involved may nnot be enough to warrant a lawsuit. It will also help to combat copyright paranoia in those sufferers who believe in a strict misunderstanding of the law to their own detriment.
April 13, 2012

Sherwin said:

...
There's probably a lot of (academically, if not in litigation) useful comparisons to the US case Feist v. Rural Telephone Service: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_v._Rural
April 13, 2012

Anon-K said:

...
Chris Brand, since Canada Post wants us to use the Postal Code, and they created them initially specifically for the purposes of mail delivery, there is no way that they could legitimately claim infringement on any piece of mail sent through Canada Post or Purolator Canada. However, presumably a claim could be made if the carrier was another, non-affiliated, delivery service.
April 13, 2012

beenderdonedat said:

This isn't about your individual use of postal codes.
This is about protecting massively overpriced database access for enterprise applications. Many companies have to pay tens of thousands yearly in licensing.

Ridiculous and infuriating is the only way to describe it.
April 13, 2012

end user said:

...
I've used GeoCoder info for Drupal based sites using the Location module. Maybe they should just create a hash from each postal code and use that instead ...?
April 14, 2012

Paul said:

foord1@gmail.com
Post codes were introduced to facilitate sorting of mail - so to avoid breaching copyright maybe we don't use those codes - the mail will still be delivered - there will be delays arising from the need to manually sort mail - but that is an insignificant sacrifice for non-urgent mail.
April 14, 2012

end user said:

...
I've used GeoCoder info for Drupal based sites using the Location module. Maybe they should just create a hash from each postal code and use that instead ...?
April 14, 2012

Doug Webb said:

If my postal code is not a fact, what is it?
The list of postal codes is determined by an algorithm, a collection of rules. The algorithm will produce the same list of postal codes every time, so the list is not a random creative act and thus not eligible for copyright.
April 14, 2012

BuddyRich said:

The Feist precedent in the US posted by Sherman would make this an open and shut case.
Were this the US.

The only problem I can see is with the crowdsourcing itself. Since they are selling this information, they obviously used some sort of backend data to verify its accuracy, as anybody could put any value in for any longitude and latitude. So what did they validate against? Also as Doug Webb mentioned, the postal code is an algorithm, they could have used that for verification, which will pinpoint it down to a side of a street usually.
April 14, 2012

Support_To_Real_Data_Custodians said:

Geocoder.ca is a sham
Geocoder.ca is a sham. The data is not all that accurate. And yes. Canada Post does MAINTAIN the FSA and Local Delivery Units. With the many unique PostalCodes - for example PCs to buildings that go to address across town - this is not information widely known - for security.
Let's look at the source of the data - and you fail with support for geocoder.ca.
April 14, 2012

Sean said:

Wouldn't governments be able to sue map makers?
They could claim copyright over the street names and design of cities.

@Support to Real Data Custodians - just because someone does a bad job on a database doesn't mean they are violating a copyright. Data accuracy is something Canada post could use as a competitive argument to attract customers not as an argument in support of copyright. If the government wants to introduce monopoly rights to that data taht's different from a court extending copy right over the data.
April 14, 2012

Gary said:

Postal Code Data products page at Canada Post
Here's the page about "Postal Code Data Products"
http://www.canadapost.ca/cpo/m.../pcdp.jsf
April 14, 2012

Lae said:

BuddyRich
Presumably if Geocoder collected enough crowdsourced data, the dataset would be self correcting, and would not need verification.

As far as CanadaPost trying to stay in business... trolling probably isn't the best solution. They might be better off pulling their pants down for a company like Amazon.ca or any of the other major consumer shippers in Canada.

Sure, letters are down, but packages are WAY up in volume and have more monetary value anyway.
April 14, 2012

MikePearsonNZ said:

Opening a canof worms
Using that rationale, local councils can sue postal companies for use of council street numbering/naming addresses, and their profiting from it. This is what happens when you privatize a service and don't consider the public good aspect of information assets.
April 14, 2012

Steve said:

What about MicroSoft
Intellectual properties belong to those who produce them. Bill Gates defends his vigorously and everyone now knows that they will be dragged into court if they mess with his. Why is it different with a Crown Corp's property? It may be in everyday use and free for us to use but not free for us to steal/change/sell. As for the defense that they independently gathered the data this would mean that they never confirmed the information provided. Not only would that be fool hardy but call into question the accuracy of the codes as a simple key stroke error could and would cause errors. So yes Canada Post has a case and those who in the past have profited off her and other Crowns had better be prepared to spend a lot on court costs.
April 15, 2012

Anon-K said:

...
@MikePearsonNZ, there is 3 types of address in Canada.

1) Street Address. This is the legal address of the building.
2) Mailing address. Most often this is the street address plus the postal code. This is not always the case; in rural areas it can be a rural route or a post office box; in smaller urban centres it can also be "general delivery".
3) 911 address (emergency services).

For instance, at my house I have all three (I live in a rural area). The legal address is Lot X, Concession Y, Z Township. The mailing address is a PO box (since we have a group mailbox at the end of the road) for the nearest town. And the 911 address is something else yet. The councils create the legal and 911 addresses, not the mailing address.

And as Steve put it, Canada Post is not a private corp; it is a crown corporation.

@Steve: regarding your last bit, I disagree. Canada Post has had more than sufficient time to assert copyright on the postal code if they wanted to; to grant them this one would be like having a bill passed into law that had retroactive impacts. At best all that the courts should grant them is the right to have their ownership of postal codes acknowledged by the users.
April 15, 2012

end user said:

...
>Steve said: What about MicroSoft

What about them? Ohhh you mean the intellectual property used to make up patents on existing patents but getting them granted because they thew in the word computer or mobile device into it? Ohh you mean the intellectual property used to stifle innovation and bring in patent wars wasting courts time and trying up the system...

CP will just bitch, whine sue yet I bet it would take then years to release anything worth while for the developer/consumer to use if that... Knowing how crown corps work we know how far they'll get.

Have you seen how ridiculous it is to get access to the CP shipping api so you can use it for shopping cart software?

Yah....
April 15, 2012

Dean said:

...
The postal code was created when Canada post was a government dept. Seems like postal codes belong in the public domain since the public paid for its creation.
April 15, 2012

Chris Miller said:

...
You can't use Feist v. Rural in this case for a couple of reasons. One is that it was a decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court and not applicable to Canadian affairs. The other is that the Feist v. Rural ruling came down to "information alone without a minimum of original creativity cannot be protected by copyright" (Wikipedia). In the Canadian case, there is original content, the postal codes in question.

I think in common wealth countries like Canada and Australia, they follow English copyright law. I have seen other source state that post codes and phone numbers are copyright protected in England. It would be reasonable to assume that Canadian law follows UK law in this matter.

This would be good opportunity to change Canadian law and exclude postal codes and phone numbers from copyright protection. The current law causes more harm than good. By limiting access to Canadian postal codes, you are limiting it's use.
April 15, 2012

Ole Juul said:

Pirate Bay?
I wonder if we'll start to see offshore hosting of torrent files pointing to Canadian postal codes.
April 16, 2012

Dominik said:

Developer
Crazy. As a Canadian Citizen--I can't believe my taxes are going to this case.
May 30, 2012

Dominik said:

PROPOSAL
Someone should start a new Zip code system for online use (for Canada) that's open source. We hardly use Snail Mail, and eventually everyone would adopt it. The Zip Code system (where you have a numerical code for a geo location) is far superior to the data costly Postal Code system. The Postal Code system was great for human use, but not for data crunching.

I bet that within a decade everyone (including private delivery companies) would switch.
May 30, 2012

Justin said:

Update?
What's the latest on this lawsuit?
August 10, 2012

naghma beauchamp said:

lost parcel canada post unwilling to refund or investigate
i sent a parcel last november and it mentioned it was delivered. last week i went to that particular city and asked the person i sent the parcel to and was mentioned that he did not receive it. i asked canadapost and they state that i should have purchased insurance while i was told that it comes with 100 dollar insurance. canadapost says they cannot investigate as it is not within 90 days. there is nothing written on the receipt that it is 90 days only for investigation the lady at the counter stated i dont need a signature as mails always arrive -- i think the mail person stole it and did not give it to the right address and stated they delivered it. why should 8 months make a difference rather than 90 days. can they not find out from the mail person where he or she delivered it to. as if after 90 days the mail person would confess that they did not steal it. i think canadapost is no longer reliable with the high postage price tag and unreliable delivery some other competitor should come into play. may be the CEO Chopra should explain where my parcel ended up -- has anyone else experienced the same. if canadapost will steal customers parcels then everyday is christmas for them with our possession. i cannot even get my 100 dollars as the canadapost employee had mentioned. they say i should have bought insurance.,if i couried it it comes with 100 doollar i think this is a fraud and candapost cannot be trusted. the mail person does not deliver to the right place and 90 days policy is not written on the receipt -- whenever canadapost is at fault and does not want to pay they say it is on our website. may be the employee took my parcel and is hoarding on people's parcel. please anyone reading this do not send your parcel through canadapost it all based on fraud.
August 10, 2012

Greg Lawrance said:

Britain faces similar problem - excellent article in the Guardian today
Royal Mail 'should make postcode address data available for free'
Open Data User Group argues that removing charge for location details of 29m UK residences would benefit business
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/nov/01/royal-mail-postcode-address-data?INTCMP=SRCH
November 03, 2012

tarn said:

how much change is enough
If I remove the space from the postal code, is that changed enough to include it in my database and not be subject to a copyright infringemnt accusation? Or if i remove the space and invert it as well? I am in the process of designing a website, and part of that design incorporates and in fact relies on website users to input their postal and zip code. In the background I want the website to be able to use the postal code to do multiple things. I will watch this case with some interest. personally, I believe that postal codes are in the public domain and canada post has no authority to copyright them. If they want to profit from postal codes, then they need to come up with a product that can stand on it's own, and cusotomers want to purchase it because of the value it brings.
January 14, 2013

Sy said:

Three wrongs don't make a right
Speaking from a recent experience trying to use the geocoder.ca data, I can tell you as a matter of fact it is quite inaccurate. The postal code point do not map to the centre of the geographic coverage areas (at least not in the major urban centre I was looking at), many don't map to the right area period and the polygons are simply all wrong. I suppose I'm one of the few who actually checked the data before proceeding to use it, going by geocoder'ca's extensive list of 'clients'. That list includes numerous government agencies and NGOs. I think there's potential for more harm than good when agencies people rely on every day rely on inaccurate, if not completely incorrect, data.

I don't doubt Canada Post has seen inefficiencies and incurred extra costs as a result of the inaccurate data geocoder.ca provides. However, it helped create that very problem by not making the official postal code data freely available itself, leaving a gap for geocoder.ca and others to fill with data of rather dubious origin / quality.

While the federal government tries to play good cop by saying it would prefer to see the postal code data open to the public, it had a hand in creating this mess. It cut funding to the crown corporation, deeming it a for-profit corporation that was expected to be self-sufficient. The federal government would be rather disingenuous to turn around now and criticise Canada Post for seeking to profit from its assets.
January 23, 2013

USPS zip code said:

USPS zip code
I am in the process of designing a website, and part of that design incorporates and in fact relies on website users .
June 16, 2013

Rah said:

Do I own my address?
If Canada Post owns the postal code, I think I own my home address because the house is my personal property. I don't think Canada Post should be selling lists with my name or my address in the lists. Companies can buy lists from Canada Post based on various demographic criteria. I never gave Canada Post the right to use my name or address. How about a class action suit to stop Canada Post selling lists with peoples names and street addresses?

In an era where everything is becoming open, a government-owned monopoly doing this is ridiculous. With open source, free mooc courses, open data etc., the trend is toward creating free access. Many governments have opened access to variety of databases. Canada Post is losing money on its mail delivery business. Their survival depends on finding other revenue sources. Canadian citizens will lose out if this copyright claim is upheld by the court.
October 02, 2013

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