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Geocoder.ca sued by Canada Post for their open database of postal codes (geocoder.ca)
288 points by kennywinker on Apr 11, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 84 comments

Things are changing. Technology is cheaper, internet is prevalent and small organizations disrupt the ways of the dinosaurs. We've seen that with newspapers, we are seeing that with Hollywood and we'll soon see it in education. The dinosaurs are big and powerful, but we all know what happens to them eventually. Sooner or later technology wins. Always.

Having said that I hope Geocoder gets help with PR. I'm no PR expert but the fact that this post is not on their front page is the first bad sign. And the media, which always loves a David & Goliath story, apparently hasn't covered this; that's another bad sign. Swaying public opinion to your side is the way to win this, not litigation. If Geocoder lets Canada Post drag them to court they've already lost.

As a Canadian I'm one of the owners of Canada Post and I hope I lose.

Along the PR lines, it seems like something their local- well, I'm an ignorant American so whatever the equivalent of Congressperson is (the Queen?) - might want to involve themselves in. As it's not actual DB theft, it seems like they are trying to create a monopoly (albeit a very narrow one).

Member of Parliament or MP for short. Also, MPPs (Member of Provincial Parliament) could probably help here too.

A local queen is much funnier though.

Canada Post is pretty stupid on this one. Even if you type a postal code into Google Maps you get a result.

I could imagine how old and stupid the gov't official is who filed that claim. Canada's a broke country, and the latest government budget has cut a tonne of government jobs, slashed R&D credits, etc.

Canada has the lowest debt to GDP ratio in the G7. We've been in surplus for the greater part of the last decade, and are soon to be back in the black. Broke? I'm not so sure about that.

Unlike the States, Canada does not have a cash-in-cash-out system for our version of Social Security, so many debt to gdp figures you look up online are very, very misleading since we will be in much better shape when the baby boomers retire.

Canada's a broke country

On what basis do you make that claim?

I think the (ignorant) right wing in the States assumes that Canada has its early 1990s fiscal problems because it is has lots of successful social programs that would considered leftist down here. Idiots.

Based on the level of detail mentioned in the OP, it's pretty clear the author is Canadian.

...of whom some 39 percent voted for a Conservative candidate in the last election. The blinkered Sun Media worldview is alive and well here in Canada, and even if it doesn't represent a majority opinion, our first-past-the-post electoral system means it can carve out a majority in the House of Commons and form the government.

As that system has done with six exceptions since confederation (Laurier in 1900 and 1904, Borden in 1917, Mackenzie King in 1940, Diefenbaker in 1958, Mulroney in 1984). In fact ruling parties having over 50% of the votes in Canadian election is the exception rather then the rule.

The only way to make sure the general populace vote = ruling party is to have an American style two party system, and frankly, I've heard very few good things about that. IMO Canada has a decent balance; parties on the fringe either adapt or assimilate, and all parties gravitate to the political centre if they want success. It saves having two powerful parties for long, and prevents the dog breakfest of some countries where there's 15 different names on the ballot.

> The only way to make sure the general populace vote = ruling party is to have an American style two party system

I offer as counterexamples all the industrialized liberal democracies with various forms of proportional representation, in which the composition of the government actually does reflect the general populace vote. They may not be countries in which a single party forms the government, but there's no reason a single party has to form the government, particularly if no party receives more than 50% support among electors.

I have a lot of respect for the parliamentary system, in which voters elect the House of Commons, the House appoints a Prime Minister, the Prime Minister appoints a Cabinet, the PM and Cabinet are accountable to the House. I appreciate that this system has historically included parties, or formal associations among members of the House of Commons to vote more or less along party lines.

However, the parliamentary system also has a long tradition of coalitions among parties, and even of governments being formed by parties that did not win a majority of seats. The basic unit of legitimacy for a parliamentary government is that the government enjoys the confidence of the House.

I was really frustrated during the 2008-2009 constitutional crisis over the widespread public ignorance over how the parliamentary system works. It's frighteningly clear that most Canadians don't understand their own government, which makes the system a ripe target for abuse. Since the 1970s, Canadian ruling parties have steadily concentrated power more narrowly in the PMO, to the point that Canadians have forgotten that they vote for the House, not for the Government.

As a result, governments have increasingly snubbed their nose at the House of Commons - to the extent that the Harper government actually deployed a handbook for disrupting and marginalizing parliamentary committees and absolutely refused to share budget numbers with MPs, triggering an election over their Contempt of Parliament.

During the constitutional crisis, and following the lead of the Conservative Party, far too many Canadians argued with straight faces that a government appointed by a coalition of parties representing more than half the seats in the House and more than half the votes cast would be somehow anti-democratic, while an appointed government that refused to face a confidence vote - the most fundamental litmus test of legitimacy in a parliamentary system - was somehow upholding democracy.

We can no longer afford a system in which a single party with a minority of votes can enjoy a majority of seats and more-or-less absolute power to pass legislation during its term in control of the government. You write, "all parties gravitate to the political centre if they want success", but the current government is busy passing one-sided ideological legislation - like the omnibus crime bill and the new copyright bill - that most Canadians oppose.

If they held seats proportional to their popular support, they would have to cooperate with another party to achieve majority support in the House and we would see more balanced legislation.

I just think he was faking it by using "tonne" instead of "ton".

He should have thrown a cheque in there for good measure

One day I might be able to down vote ignorant comments and ones like yours will always take priority.

Isn't it nice to have priorities.

Is your comment speaking as one who thinks conservatives are right wing ignorant people?

In this instance I was being apolitical.

I don't think conservatives are ignorant (any more than anyone else, anyway). I tend not to agree with hard line conservatives about the majority of stuff but I also disagree massively with the hard left wing as well. Both groups are reasonably represented in my family, and I tend not to please any of them. But that is probably more because I can be an extremely sarcastic bastard and talk a lot of utter nonsense at times.

This is getting off topic, but it doesn't really matter how Canada is doing financially (from what I hear, we're doing quite fine).

US still has a better standard of living. Canadian housing is getting ridiculous and needs to be controlled. We need cheaper housing. If I were a young person buying a home, I'd rather be buying in California instead of Toronto.

BTW, I'm Canadian.

While you can get cheap housing in Sacramento or Stockton, the California equivalents of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are just as unaffordable as those cities. Maybe more so. If you think commuting Clarington to Toronto is bad, try Inland Empire to Los Angeles or Union City to San Francisco.

If you're a young person looking to buy a home, you need to have your head examined. Doubly so if it's in Toronto or Vancouver. From research I've done into this, it's really better to just rent, and will be barring either legislation expelling speculators out of the market, or the housing bubble bursting.

And also, what talentdeficit said.

Even if Canada 'was' broke, I'd have to say it's better than being over $15.5 trillion in debt ;)

edit: Assumed an American is making the comment.

Canada has the potential of becoming like USA was in the 1900's. Look at the map and think of all the natural resources to be shared by under 40 million people.

I came across this while researching postal code data. I was first shocked to learn that this data set wasn't freely available from Canada Post ($5,000/year to access it), then pleased to find geocoder.ca's data set, and then pissed to learn they were being sued for it.

So far there has been absolutely no media attention on this.

Which sadly isnt' surprising. The combination of it being something that would only affect a small group of people (basically anyone in the IT industry building location-aware applications), and the media's ADD-like ability to concentrate on issues will keep it from ever seeing the light of day.

I don't know what this government has against the tech industry in this country, but it must be some serious loathing with all the BS coming down the pipes

I think it goes back to a cultural problem with government. They don't acknowledge hobby research as legitimate or useful.

So they release data to universities and charge everyone else an obscene amount.

This kills a lot of start up ideas.

This goes back a long way. Amazing amounts of GIS data for the U.S. was available from tonnes of vendors sliced and diced in all sorts of interesting way on a CD-ROMs for < $100 way back in 1996. Canada, not so much. $3,000-15,000 for similar data. Because StatsCan and other organizations were selling it to big corporations who could pay that price tag... the result of that policy? Google maps could never have started in Canada.

It's not too bad these days, though. I'm involved with a Candadian company doing GIS, and finding free layers getting easier.

E.g. http://www.geogratis.ca has a massive amount of freely available data for Canada.

There are some ridiculous bits, though, such as being unable to get the Alberta Township grid, which is a necessity for a lot of property related stuff, without paying.

Which is a great micro example of why startups have an uphill battle here as opposed to other jurisdictions. Sadly I dont' see that changing at all, barring a radical house cleaning.

I have emailed a journalist, I hope this will be helpful.

I don't even understand how you found it, I can't seem to navigate to the announcement from their front page. If they make it impossible to find, it's quite understandable nobody knows about it.

It's not easy to find, but I've managed to work out what seems to be the shortest route.

Step 1: Start at http://geocoder.ca/

Step 2: Click "Free Data" -> http://geocoder.ca/?freedata=1

Step 3: Click "You haven't made it until you get sued" -> http://geocoder.ca/?sued=1

There seems to be no mention of "sued" in the source of the front page.

For those curious, the US government releases geocoded zip codes openly:


Just a note to make sure we are all comparing apples with apples, but US (and Australian) postcodes are much less specific than Canadian (and UK) postcodes.

AFAIK In Canada and the UK a postcode gives you an exact address, or pretty close to (around 10-20 properties to each postcode?). In the USA and Australia, a post code just gives you a 'suburb' (hundreds to thousands of properties to each postcode).

Some postal codes contain at least 5000 people, but at the same time my apartment building has one of its own.

I think it's largely based on how mail is distributed, as they are Canada Post identifiers. My 5000 person hometown has no delivery -- everyone goes to the one post office. But my apartment building has its own little postal box thing, which requires a key from the mailman, which is a special case compared to dropping in mailboxes on the rest of the street.

I don't suppose there's any postal workers on here to chime in?

Generally speaking, a postcode refers to a road, part of a road (if the road is very long), or a single organisation. Roughly, you will have 1-100 properties per postcode.

The first line of the address (often just the house number) and the postcode are sufficient to yield the entire address.

Actually, and I quote:

> expressly forbidden to [...] use in any database and/or application for the purposes of providing, updating or maintaining any publicly available postcode look up or finder functionality;

You're not allowed to use the Australian post code database as provided by Australia Post to provide a lookup or finder functionality that's publicly available.

That is strictly true, but I've possibly found a way around this and have posted a CC licensed version (the most open I was able to find) on GitHub accordingly. https://github.com/joahua/AusPostcode

I see these are built on the Australian Bureau of Statistics "approximate" postcodes which are matched to census districts and therefore more useful for demographic analysis; no CDs cross postcodes in this dataset. There are a bunch of similar geographic datasets available from the ABS, including electoral boundaries, local government areas and so on: http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/D3110124.NSF/24e5997b9bf2ef...

All of that data is approximated by the ABS from whatever body controls the "real" versions, but is 99% good enough for anything you'd want to do with it.

Australia Post, on the other hand, don't really use postcodes to deliver mail anyway, I've been told. They're a vestigal construct which are very prominent in people's minds but so fraught in the implementation that any systems which analyse them (including Australia Post's) work against them rather than with them. I didn't know about Canada's system — that sounds like a much better idea!

Do you have any source for that last paragraph? Seems crazy

Actually, there are a few. For example, QLD 4352. It's just a collective postcode that covers everything around Toowoomba that hasn't been given a postcode. Using the suburb name instead of 4352 is a whole lot more productive.


It's eight non-contiguous areas as far north as Caboolture and as far south as Casino, the biggest of which are not much larger than Brisbane City Council.


There's a treasure trove in the post code boundaries of utterly bizarre things that only past houses being in weird places can at times explain.

http://maps.google.com.au/?q=act+2611 or this: http://maps.google.com.au/?q=sa+5710

No source besides my discussions with techs in Australia Post, sorry.

Furthemore, Russian govt releases full information on Postal Codes, Cities, Streets and even House numbers on those streets. For free, but in very large files http://fias.nalog.ru/Public/DownloadPage.aspx

Do you know how accurate that is? Every time I've seen census zip code data it comes with a big disclaimer that its only accurate as of the last census. The USPS changes zip codes at will.

TIGER is the Census geo data set. This is "zip code tabulation areas," not strict zip codes. The Census does update its maps more frequently than every 10 years though.

My zip code isn't in there, and neither is one from a nearby city.

They are not very accurate if you are trying to map addresses to zip codes, for example. The data is compiled based on Census tracts. For each census tract, it tells you the most common zip code in that tract.

Thank you very much for the link! Didn't know about that one. I have always used:


They do charge a nominal fee, but the data quality is excellent and they have monthly updates.

All works of the US government have to be public domain AFAIR. It's great.

How can this data not be public domain?

If you think that's bad, government laws are copyrighted in some parts of the world. Yes, you're a pirate if you try to share government laws.

Canada law is weird. They have "Crown copyright". As for Canada Post, they are required to make money, and are not required to not exploit publicly funded dataset like the postal code database. This is called monopoly.

Canada law is weird. They have "Crown copyright"

I don't know about Canada, but the UK has 'crown copyright', and it's essentially the same as regular copyright, but the copyright is owned by the government. Places without a crown still have governments that have copyright.

There some weird things, The King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Peter Pan stories are under perpetual unending copyright. (Well Peter Pan will go public domain when the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital ceases to exist)

US law mandate that data created by the tax payer money, ie the government, be Public Domain.

I keep that particular quirk (along with their appointed senate) in my back pocket for whenever I need to name an area in which US law is more democratic/liberal than Canadian law :)

In the USA, thankfully, all federally made data is public domain. In other countries, it's not. It's terrible.

So what are the Canadian copyright laws like? I was under the impression that you can't copyright facts.

Depends on how you interpret it. You are correct in that you can't coyright facts, but I'm sure the lawyers that Canada Post has hired will argue that since Canada Post created/authored the postal codes, it has ownership of that data and therefore can be copyrighted. The rest is just a combo of spin and waiting for the sued parties to be bled dry.

If a country that is more capitalist and copyright mad then we are has no issue providing postal data, that our crown corporation has their panties in a twist is a cruel joke. Just adds another reason why I'd never use Canada Post for anything anyways.

The State of Oregon went through a similar situation in 2008. Justia.com was mirroring the Oregon Revised Statutes, and was served a cease & desist—not because the State claimed copyright over the laws themselves, but rather over the metadata such as indices, tables, line numbers, etc. In the end, the State agreed not to assert copyright over the laws (though that does not equal an admission that they do not have copyright). More: https://public.resource.org/oregon.gov/index.html#trail

The other question is whether the postal code data falls under Crown Copyright (http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/ccl/aboutCrownCopyright.h...). There all all kinds of restrictions and freedoms that come along with that.

Of course, it might not be the case that Canada Post data is under Crown Copyright, since it's a Crown corporation and not a government department. IANAL.

If that is the case, wouldn't sharing your postal address be considered a derivative work?

I have made no agreements with Canada Post to distribute my address, the right has only been assumed on my part. It could turn out to be a dangerous liability for all Canadians if it holds up.

While many jurisdictions hold the same, that 'facts' can't be subject to copyright, there is often a (lobbied for) grey area surrounding compilations of facts.

The usual suspects in these cases are recipes, Geodata and my personal favourite - Premier League Football fixtures. The latter is in the final stages of a European court challenge that is rightly claiming licensing such a simple set of data for thousands of pounds is absurd: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17218968

It would be an interesting case. I hope it goes to court but there's probably no chance that it will unless somebody takes it on pro bono. Is there any organization like the EFF in Canada?

There's an update at the bottom of the linked Geocoder page that says the site is now being represented in federal court by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.

There's more info about CIPPIC at http://www.cippic.ca/en

There is no EFF equivalent in Canada.

But the CIPPIC is acting as counsel for these guys. They know what they are doing and are the closest I can see.

The EFF is an international foundation. They're only based in the US.

I emailed the EFF, pointing at that blog-post. I hope they will at least provide some counseling to the guys.

I was under the impression that you can't copyright facts.

It depends.

In some places you can copyright a database of facts. In some places you cannot copyright a database of facts. In some places you need to do some 'creative act' to get copyright, some places use a 'sweat of the brow' rule (i.e. that you have expanded some effort, even if it's not creative). It gets coplicated.

> I was under the impression that you can't copyright facts.

I'm not sure. But I'd imagine that books like the Guinness book of world records is probably under copyright and its' just a collection of facts.

Is there a link to the C&D or the court case details? I'm sure we can agree that helping people with zipcode data for free is laudable, but reading only one half of an argument isn't a good way to make decisions.

They charge $500 for their data set. An easy way to combat this litigation would be to release the set gratis. Let the information flow.

5000$. Missing a zero.

As has been pointed out, I was referring to Geocoder's rates. I had the same confusion though. The request for donations certainly makes it seem like they are beneficent, but they are themselves selling the data. Not that that's legally or morally wrong (certainly not) - it's just a different position to be in.

They are only selling it if you want it without the ODb licence. I.e. you don't want to share-alike or attribute.

Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

He was referring to Geocoder. Geocoder sells their database for commercial use for $500.

a) Geocoder only charges for their data if you need it without the restrictions of the ODbLicence it's released under (basically attribution, share-alike).

b) giving it away for free would not actually change anything legally. You can still get sued for copyright infringement even if you don't make any money on it.

i guess somebody should put their database on bittorrent pretty quick

my cousin works in PR for canada post. i emailed him to get the scoop. will post here when i do.

The issue with these postcode databases is that once they're released to a customer there's no real way of tracking if they get reused elsewhere. The contract I had with the Royal Mail in the UK mandated destruction of all media and backups of the database once the contract period expired. As we know, getting individual tables out of old DB backups isn't necessarily easy but that's what the terms state. It's easy to see why they do that because it's not really a complicated "product" and very easy to duplicate.

That said, Canada Post should have tried to talk before litigation as all this does is make a crown organisation look like a bully in front of Canadians and now the world.

I wouldn't worry about this getting anywhere. And if it does, I'm pretty sure the current gov't will smack Canada Post silly as retaliation.

I'm likely speaking from the wrong culture, but the phrasing "You haven't made it until you get sued" on their home page sounds like Geocoder are attempting to spin a bit of a complement for themselves rather than going for the image of a David being bullied by a Goliath.

I hope I'm write in suggesting that such a phrasing may not the best way of getting support.

This has strong echoes of the Astrolabe/Olson case, only is possibly even more nutty, somewhat better funded and a hell of a lot less excusable on the part of Canada Post.

Legally it should be a walk for Geocoder, but I wouldn't like to make a wager on it.

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