American Bankers' Association Claims Routing Numbers Are Copyrighted
from the um,-feist-feist-fesit dept
Reader J Cronin alerts us to the apparent fact that the American Bankers Association (ABA) believes that federal routing numbers are covered by its own copyright, and they’ve sent a takedown letter to a website that published routing numbers. Greg Thatcher runs a website that, among other things, publishes bank routing numbers. Those are the numbers that appear on the bottom of checks that basically tell you how to send the banks money. Thatcher gets those numbers directly from the Federal Reserve’s website. Having a single source for those numbers is really useful for people trying to wire money, so you can see why Thatcher’s page would be really popular with lots of people. But the ABA sent this bizarre email:
Demand for Immediate Take-Down: Notice of Infringing Activity
Case #: 10
Date: 30 May 2013
Dear Sir or Madam,
The American Bankers Association has received information that the domain listed above, which appears to be on servers under your control, is offering unlicensed copies of, or is engaged in other unauthorized activities relating to copyrighted works published by the American Bankers Association 1. Identification of copyrighted works:
ABA Routing Numbers
ABA Key to Routing Numbers
American Bankers Association
2. Copyright infringing material or activity found at the following location(s):
The above copyright works are being copied, displayed and made available for copying by others, including through downloading, at the above location without authorization of the copyright owner.
3. Statement of authority:
The information in this notice is accurate, and I hereby certify under penalty of perjury that I am authorized to act on behalf of American Bankers Association, the owner of the copyrights in the works identified above. I have a good faith belief that none of the materials or activities listed above have been authorized by American Bankers Association, its agents, or the law. We hereby give notice of these activities to you and request that you take expeditious action to remove or disable access to the material described above, and thereby prevent the illegal reproduction and distribution of these copyright works via your company’s network. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter. Please advise us regarding what actions you take.
On behalf of American Bankers Association
1120 Connecticut Ave NW,
As you’ll probably note, this is a typical DMCA takedown notice. But it seems ridiculous that they’re claiming copyright on routing numbers. Thatcher responded to their email, pointing out that he was providing information that came from the Federal Reserve. While I can understand where he’s coming from, his argument doesn’t really mean very much. The federal government can distribute copyrighted works. Just because the Fed is distributing it, doesn’t mean it’s automatically public domain (if they had created the numbers it would be a different story). It would seem that a much stronger argument is that there is no copyright in routing numbers because there is no creativity in them, and they are merely factual bits of information, and you cannot copyright facts.
Either way, the ABA’s lawyers from bigshot law firm Covington and Burling shot back that the ABA had, in fact, been “creative” in creating those numbers, and thus it had a valid copyright.
The ABA Routing Number was originally developed by the ABA to identify only check processing endpoints, but has evolved over the years to also designate participants in automated clearinghouses, electronic funds transfer, and on-line banking. These advances in the ABA Routing Number were the result of significant effort and creativity by the ABA. Today there are thousands ABA Routing Numbers and they play a critical role in the integrity of bank payment systems. Each nine digit ABA Routing Number is an original copyrighted work carefully selected and arranged as a result of the ABA’s creativity. Copyright exists from the moment of creation of each ABA Routing Number and registration in the United States is voluntary.
I have trouble seeing how that passes the laugh test. The lawyer who wrote those words, Nigel Howard, must have known they were ridiculous when he wrote them. He’s an experienced lawyer. In the same letter (embedded below), Howard points out, reasonably, that the ABA is concerned about the continued dissemination of retired numbers. That’s a legitimate concern, but it’s not a copyright issue. It’s also a concern that is easily taken care of by giving Thatcher up-to-date info on routing numbers, or (here’s a crazy thought) having the ABA publish them itself. But, no, Howard explains:
The ABA is currently re-assessing with Accuity whether it will engage in any licensing programs, but does not have a licensing program available for websites like yours at the current time.
Well, maybe rather than bullying small sites like Thatcher’s with expensive lawyers and highly questionable copyright claims, the ABA should be figuring out a way to fix that problem.