UK Royal Mail Uses Copyright Claim To Shut Down Postal Code Info Online

from the address-not-found dept

One good thing in US copyright law compared to other countries is that we don’t allow copyright on pure facts or on gov’t produced information. Other countries aren’t nearly as good about that, with ridiculous concepts like “Crown Copyright.” Over in the UK, for example the Royal Mail has apparently bullied some site for making postal code data available. The info has now been taken offline, as the site claims it doesn’t have the legal resources to fight this. The Royal Mail says that it was a violation of its intellectual property, and, of course, wants to license the database of postal codes at a mere £4,000 per year — a bit steep for smaller community or non-profit sites. So, can anyone explain how copyright makes sense here? Was copyright really the incentive necessary to create postal codes?

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Companies: royal mail

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Comments on “UK Royal Mail Uses Copyright Claim To Shut Down Postal Code Info Online”

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37 Comments
anon says:

Hi Mike:

I wish things were better in the U.S. than they are in the U.K. but they’re not. Regardless of what Congress has enacted into law, or the Supreme Court has said about government works, the Post Office continues to “enforce” a copyright in their works.

The Copyright Office treats Post Office works as non-governmental works and grants registration, unquestionably due to some inter-agency lobbying — licensing is a good money maker for the Post Office.

Now, you could, of course, use the Post Office’s works without permission and you would never get sued (because they will never sue anyone for infringement and risk the precedent.) But if you have a company with anything to lose, you can’t piss off the Post Office. The agency has an investigatory wing and you can’t afford to make enemies.

It’s the classic chilling effect; an agency that leverages their influence to break U.S. law and silence its citizens.

What can you do?

Anonymous Coward says:

Great story Mike, unfortunately you seem to have added a bunch of “Masnick facts” to perhaps make more of asplash ?
e.g. the real story :
* has nothing to do with “crown copyright”

* might have legitimate legal basis “Harry Metcalfe, co-founder of Ernestmarples.com, declined to say how it got access to the postcode data.”

* there are other sources of postcode data available although they might not be so accurate.

You’ll never replace real journalism with this approach.

CAS says:

Re: Re:

I agree – Mike, every so often I find that you’ve bent the facts to make a point. It’s a shame because you’re hurting your credibility with me.

The story sounds like Ernestmarples.com was hacking into their database to get the data. Whether that is or is not the case, declining the write your story evenhandedly has hurt your credibility.

Sad. =/

CAS says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s fine that it’s an opinion blog, and it’s even fine that he doesn’t rigorously fact check.

But in this case, I think he’s re-interpreting the article that he linked to. That’s not fact checking, that’s actually reading the article.

It’s a key difference that I think is important. I think he’s made a lot of great points and has pointed out some interesting things here. The problem is, if I can’t trust that he’s accurately relayed the details in the linked article how can I trust his conclusions?

Mike – I’d love to see a response, but I’m sure this comment is hidden under hundreds of others so I’ve had to resort to talking about you, not to you. Sorry!

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Your concerns are very valid…

A lot of the problem seems to be vague language: “We have simply asked a third party to stop allowing unauthorised access to Royal Mail data, in contravention of our intellectual property rights,”

There’s some doubt as to what is meant by “unauthorised access” – did they mean “unauthorised use” (which would make sense since they go on to say it was in violation of IP rights) – or did they actually mean unauthorized access obtained through some nefarious means (which I agree is slightly suggested by the Metcalfe declining to comment and saying there are “questions” about how they obtained the data).

I’m not sure which is the case. Maybe this wasn’t Mike’s most thorough post ever, but I’m not ready to accuse him of “adding Masnick facts to make more of a splash”

Alex Terman says:

This is sadly enforcable.

The Postcode system was created by the Royal Mail, they have every right to protect the data.

The Royal Mail licenses the postcode database to businesses (this database can lookup addresses via postcodes, and look up postcodes via addresses). If another site is doing the same thing, thus getting around the pay-for option (It’s £75,000 for a corporate license, you do the math for the $ cost), the Royal Mail has every right to protect its interests and IP.

Do I like it? No. But the company has certain rights to protect its income.

Captain Kibble (profile) says:

Re: This is sadly enforcable.

It isn’t just a normal company though is it? The postcode system was created while the Royal Mail was a ‘proper’ nationalised business and the money used was from public funds. The Royal Mail is still a limited company owned by the government. The British taxpayer paid for the postcode system directly so in my opinion the the database should be public domain. If the Royal Mail want to run an API that allows people access and make money from providing the infrastructure to do searches and the like that is fine. A copy of data however should be available freely to anyone who wants it.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: This is sadly enforcable.

Oh no it isn’t

If you ahve a Sat Nav then ALL of this information is in there – in fact you can do the Address-post code and Post Code-> address thing quite easily and you can also link that data to a Latitude and Longitude.

The same information is also available via Google Maps.

Are they threatening Google?

No?

I wonder why?

zenith (profile) says:

“The postal code system was paid for via government funds, before Royal Mail was privatized. Thus it would full under government, or Crown, copyright.”

But now it’s a private company, it doesn’t fall under the government in anyway, it’s therefore not – it’s just “copyright”… surely? I can see how it *was*… “Royal Mail” is just a trademark now. It means nothing in the context of the public sector or government.

Tina Mammoser (user link) says:

As for copyright itself the postcodes are copyright to the Crown even though the company using that information, the Royal Mail, is now private. The copyright belongs to the creator, not the publisher/distributor.

But since the Royal Mail distributes postcode information freely online (on their website anyone can search an address and get the free zipcode, or vice versa) this case seems absurd.

twilson (profile) says:

Just as with UK Ordnance Survey mapping data, Postal Codes belong to the Crown.

And just because you can find out postcode information freely online from the Royal Mail does not give you permission to scrape their site or allow you to redistribute that information, as I’m sure the Royal Mail website points out.

This is very much a non-issue.

Also with regards to Google, I think there is a licensing restriction (probably for a cheaper fee) that prevents them from displaying the full postcode on Google Maps (hence you only see the first half), although you can search with the full postcode.

Sheinen says:

They are valid examples.

In fact a quick google tells me that guy lives in Hornsey Road, Liverpool, Merseyside.

This is what’s ridiculous. They aren’t exactly hidden! Do I have to pay the Royal Mail every time I tell someone my address and use ‘their’ postcode?

The Posties are stiking over here AGAIN soon by the way.

And if you think ‘not using the code’ is going to force them to do more work? Beep – wrong answer! They just ‘lose’ the letter! 14.4million letters are lost every year according to BBC News. And thats WITH Post Codes!

I’ve spoken to post men about this before, to which they reply that the management are paid dispraportionate wages while they do all the leg work…Well fucking der?! That’s how companies work! You knew that when you signed up for the job dipshit!

Anon says:

I think this post is pretty misleading. The Royal Mail aren’t saying that no one can use postcodes, or even that postcodes are covered by copyright. They’re saying Ernestmarples.com is allowing people to use the Royal Mail database for free. If RM are charging for a licence then isn’t that… theft? After all someone at RM must compile and maintain this database and unfortunately they need to get paid for that work.

If Ernestmarples wants to make its own database of every postcode in the UK then I think that would be a different story – one RM may not like but would have less of a legal stand point. However I’m pretty sure that would be ridiculously time consuming.

As for people talking about other companies that offer postcodes, maybe they do have their own database or maybe, heaven forbid, they pay for a licence.

Royal Mail has to make money like every other company, would you rather they put up postage or cut workers pay so we have even more bloody strikes?

(PS The ROYAL Mail’s “copyright” isn’t crown copyright? Either it is, or they’re misrepresenting themselves – this is a joke right?)

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’re saying Ernestmarples.com is allowing people to use the Royal Mail database for free. If RM are charging for a licence then isn’t that… theft? After all someone at RM must compile and maintain this database and unfortunately they need to get paid for that work.

Nope. No one has a right to “get paid” for their work. If the market/technology/climate changes and their business model can’t handle it, that’s THEIR problem, not those who demonstrated the problems with the system.

Anon says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is if thy are stealing their work. Lik I said if ernestmaples.com made a different database themselves THEN I would agree that Royal Mail doesn’t have a right to shut them down but the article seems to be saying that Ernestmaples just used their database, the person who made and maintained that databse does have a right to get paid.

This hasn’t exposed a flaw in their business model its just shown a flaw in their security.

[i]No one has a right to “get paid” for their work[/i] – Most people do?

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t see where Mike claimed the Royal Mail and Crown Copyright are linked other than them both being stupid ideas comparatively. I can forgive people whose first language is not english, but not those who do speak english as their first language and are failing at basic reading comprehension. Please try harder next time.

I agree with Mike on this one and would also love an answer to his question, to “explain how copyright makes sense here? Was copyright really the incentive necessary to create postal codes?” I would especially love to hear an answer to this from those whom agree with the actions of Royal Mail et al.

Peter says:

1) The UK/European copyright laws are better for the owners of data. They protect the ‘effort of compiling’, so use teh sweat of brow doctrine. In the USA that doctrine was rejected recently in a US Supreme Court verdict, basically denying database owners their property rights. The erosion of property rights has gotten very bad in the USA, so bad that database owners are often moving their property to Europe for better protection.

2) As to ‘government’ having greater copyright privileges in the UK than in the USA, that is not true anymore. In the USA federal government is virtually untouchable, so cannot be sued successfully and they abuse that by claiming copyright and charging licensing for anything they get their hands on, including publicly owned art, documents, databases etc.

3) One can of course always move the copy of the postal database in the UK to a country that has no copyright treaty with the UK, and voila, the Royal Mail cannot touch you. The question is of course then how you can get any revenue from UK users sent to your country, since the UK can in theory confiscate any such revenue then as ‘illegitimate’.

Johny Adams says:

Google API free does not have a UK license for postcodes hence the accuracy of using Google maps for store Locators is very poor. They also cannot Gecode Ireland, Developers and agency’s have awful get rounds which often show US towns instead of UK as only based on the first 4 digits of a postcode.

In all, no professional would use Google as there are specialists such as Bing and ViaMichelin would have the full kit available for business’s

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