Canada Post sues crowdsourced postal-code database, claims copyright in Canadian postal-codes

Michael Geist sez,

Canada Post has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Geolytica, which operates, 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. 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, questions on whether Canada Post owns copyright in the database if there is copyright, and a denial that the crowdsourced version of the database - independently created by GeoCoder - infringes the copyright of the Canada Post database.

Canada Post Files Copyright Lawsuit Over Crowdsourced Postal Code Database


    1. You can have copyright of a database of facts, but not the facts themselves. I.e. It’s ok to compile your of database of postcodes, as long as you don’t copy the data from someone elses database.

      1. You can actually copy the data from someone else’s database as long as you then do other stuff with it that meets the creativity standard of authorship, and that bar isn’t very high at all. 

  1. Whilst these questions are  certainly interesting legal questions, I’m more interested in why a crown owned corporation that serves to deliver mail should give a fuck about what other people do with post codes. 

    GeoCoders business seems irrelevant to Canada Post’s function, and even if they are ‘competing’ should that matter to the state? Surely the purpose of Canada Post is to provide a basic service, any competition it does draw should be seen as beneficial to Canada and not something to be sued.

    1. “I’m more interested in why a crown owned corporation that serves to deliver mail should give a fuck about what other people do with post codes”

      Because Harper would never be able to sleep at night if he knew that someone, somewhere, was getting something for free.

        1. In the words of our beloved former Prime Minister “Lyin’ Brian” Mulroney:
          “There’s no whore like an old whore”.

    2. Exactly!

      Why is the government trying to make it harder for everyone?

      Perhaps the government should be replaced?

    3. Canada Post is an arms length entity that actually turns a profit albeit mostly by being a state-owned junk mail delivery service. Visits to their site may need to be monetized one day so I can see why they would want to protect their database by keeping it private.

  2. the postcode database needs to be in the public domain. it’s something that is useful and it justifies a subsidy to keep it up to date and to make it available. Taxpayers should subsidise a postcode database and be happy to know that they’ll get to tax revenue from the extra business opportunities created by having the information freely available. It couldn’t cost more than a few hundred £K a year to run such a database and provide a couple of staff to keep it up to date. Financial noise.

    1. The company needs to relocate to the US, and when Canada Post hassles them, file a racketeering complaint against them in US courts. 

    2. There’s a sustainability and responsibility question here. Postal codes are routinely added, split, combined, etc. Canada Post is the natural curator of this information since they are the ones who change it. Third party distributors/users may or may not have incentives to keep their copies of the data updated. When they use outdated information (in bulk), they are either misinforming themselves (a liability) or imposing a public cost through additional sorting required of misaddressed mail.

  3. Meanwhile, the multi-billion dollar elephant Google Maps also displays postal codes with Canadian addresses, but the little guy you’ve never heard of is the threat to Canada Post?

    1. Welcome to Harperland, where down is up, black is white (because there IS no grey), men are men (and everyone else is just plain f*#%ed) and no bean is too inconsequential to count. Or persecute, apparently. 

  4. Occasionally, Something will make me glad to live in the U.S. rather than Canada.  The pernicious concept of  “Crown Copyright” is one of those things.  Feist v Rural Telephone is another.  

    1. My first thought upon reading this comment was “I like Feist, maybe I should check out this Rural Telephone band”.

  5. Interesting. Unlike telephone books where a phone number isn’t tied by necessity to one carrier, Canadian postal codes in use are the proprietary product of the national postal service.

    Canada Post is a Crown corporation: although wholly-owned by the Federal government, it is a standalone entity with a legal mandate to be financially self-sufficient. It’s not funded by the public, but by user fees, so it’s not clear postal codes are in the public domain. They are an internally-developed reference for postal locations, such as a set of mailboxes in a rural area. There’s no question they’re hurting for money, they always are, and email is killing them… I could see how litigation could make sense in the boardroom. Arguably, they are failing to meet their fiduciary obligations if they don’t sue.

    At least GeoCoder offers the service ad-free and with terms of use requiring the information to be used for nonprofit purposes only. Might save their butt in court. It’s a shame, in a way they are promoting the postal service.

    Well, I’m going to fire up the popcorn now! This will be a great show, and hopefully some good law will get made.

    1.  With more than $250 million in profits on ~$15 billion revenue, and continually growing volumes and income, the claim that Canada Post is hurting for money and being killed by email seems pretty strange.

  6. Welcome to Canada where personal, postal delivery addresses are impossible to look up. The phone book will give you phone numbers and “fire numbers” which are street addresses. But in many places (not all) a letter sent  to a street address won’t get delivered. For mail delivery you need a postal address – sometimes a box, sometimes a street address.

  7. Contrast this with the good folks at Natural Resources Canada who not merely have released their CanVec national map database on a very liberal open licence, but also provide it specifically in OpenStreetMap format *and* they watch OSM changes in Canada to see if areas need to be re-surveyed …

  8. Compare that to the US where all data produced by the US government or under federal contract is public domain property, to be repackaged and sold any way you can imagine.  So you get MapQuest and TomTom and fish finders with maps built in. 

    1. Also, the USPS provides APIs you can use directly (if you’re a company with programmers who have the right skills) or through third parties for address, delivery or pricing information, which they need to do to compete with UPS and FedEx. It seems to be a directly opposite approach to Canada Post’s: make the data as accessible as possible rather than treat it like the crown jewels.

    2. The USPS is an odd sort of organization, very nearly equivalent to Crown Corporations actually. They *could*, if they had been assholes, have tried to copyright all the street addresses and ZIP codes. They just… didn’t decide to be assholes. I don’t know why, I’m just happy about it.

  9. Does Canada Post still sell their postal code list in phone book format? They used to… It wasn’t cheap, either, and directed primarily at business. Perhaps they are still holding on to the idea that the list is a saleable product?

    1. Yep, they sell a data set with postal code info. $5500 a year:
      I’m pretty sure they have a table of postal codes to geo-locations for $5000 a year, but I’m not sure where that one is.

      That’s the “lost business” they’re complaining about. Apparently it’s really hard work to sell a copy of a database of postal codes they already maintain by necessity (seeing as the business we pay them to do revolves around it).
      I don’t feel sorry for them.

      It could be interesting if someone creates a competing, public domain, coarse geolocation system, makes it incredibly popular and eventually strong-arms Canada Post into using it. We just need a magician ;)

  10. I’m surprised they didn’t go one step further and claim that the act of reverse engineering postal codes amounts to the circumvention of their home-brewed DRM.

  11. Soon someone will fight in court about horseshit. It is indeed embarrassing to realize what a primitive species I belong to.

  12. There is a precedent in the UK.  Geonerds started building a postcode database as a spinoff of Openstreetmap called FreeThePostcode; there were legal mutterings but the twin arguments of “you can’t copyright facts” and “this is a public good, and should be available to the public” won out.  You can get your UK postcodes here: 

    Treating postcode data as a corporate good to be milked for profit is a side effect of pretending national postal services are business and not services.  /rant. 

    1. I don’t necessarily support Canada Post’s stance here, but there seems to be a misunderstanding about profit. As a Crown corporation, they do not make a profit. Revenues minus expenses are precisely zero, and this is required by the various Acts that govern these entities.

      We have virtually the same governmental model as the UK however, so this precedent could be influential in a Commonwealth country such as Canada.

      1. To clarify: that’s the UK Post Office I was grumbling about, and maybe I was out of whack projecting my UK grudge to Canada.

  13. Completely insane! Let’s pray for an industrial revolution again. At least then we can have the excitement of labor unions and plucked chickens!

  14. So….

    Firstname Lastname
    9999 Streetname Avenue
    Toronto 5, Ontario
    M3H 6A7  (C) Canada Post


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