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Canada Post Claims Ownership of All Postal Codes

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Canada Post Files Copyright Lawsuit Over Crowdsourced Postal Code Database

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 crowd-sourced 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 crowd-sourcing techniques without any reliance on Canada Post's database. The site created a 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 crowd-sourced information, the legal issues raised by the case should attract widespread attention. Key problems 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 crowd-sourced 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.