Britain's postal-code database online at Wikileaks: produced at public expense, not owned by the public

Wikileaks is hosting a copy of the "1,841,177 post codes together with precise geographic coordinates and other information" for the UK.

One odd thing about Britain is that databases produced at public expense — maps of the country, lists of postal codes, transcripts of Parliamentary debate and so on — do not belong to the public. In order to use this data, you have to pay gigantic licensing fees to the government, who accordingly threaten to sue people who use them without permission.

It's a pretty bizarre idea. After all, none of these programmes are remotely self-sustaining — the license fees cover just a tiny fraction of the overall money used to pay for their ongoing upkeep. Imagine if this was how private enterprise worked: an entrepreneur (the government) decides to map all of Britain, so she approaches an investor (the public) for £50,000,000 to cover the expenses. Having spent all 50 mil, she then approaches a second investor (license fee payers) for an extra £5,000,000 for additional operating capital. In the real world, the investors would likely end up split like this:

Initial investor: 60%
Entrepreneur: 35%
Second round investor: 5%

And why not? The initial investor assumed all the risk, while the second round investors merely threw a little money into a proven business.

But in the British scenario, the split looks like this:

Entrepreneur: 51%
Second round investor: 49%
Initial investor: 0%

That is, the entrepreneur (the government) gets total control over the product (maps of Britain, post-code databases, etc). The second round investor (a licensee) gets to commercially exploit the product, subject to oversight from the government.

But the initial investor (the public), gets nothing. If they want, they can become second-round investors and buy licenses from the government. Or they can buy or use products made by the second round investors (the licensees).

This isn't capitalism, nor is it socialism. It's a kind of corporatism in which the risk — the money spent speculatively mapping Britain, arguing in Parliament, drawing up postal code boundaries — is entirely assumed by the public, but the reward — access and profit-taking — are entirely given to the private sector.

(Many thanks to Paula LeDieu from the British Film Institute for this analysis)

So now we've got the postal code database online and that means that any second, someone from government is going to start threatening lawsuits, telling the people who paid to create it that they don't have the right to own it, build on it and improve it.

UK government database of all 1,841,177 post codes together with precise geographic coordinates and other information, 8 Jul 2009