A judge will soon be asked to decide if collecting a list of postal codes constitutes copyright infringement.
Canada Post has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Geolytica Inc., an Ottawa-based, one-man firm that runs a website called GeoCoder. The site provides free and paid mapping services, such as the ability to look up the longitude and latitude co-ordinates of addresses.
GeoCoder also allows users to access a massive database of Canadian postal codes. It's this database, Canada Post claims, that infringes on the Crown corporation's copyright.
Canada Post is not trying to claim copyright over individual postal codes. Instead, it claims GeoCoder is infringing on its overall database, which contains information about roughly 890,000 codes.
"Some time prior to June, 2011, unknown to Canada Post and without its consent, the defendant appropriated the CPC Database and made unauthorized reproductions of the plaintiff's database, in whole or in substantial part, in the course of developing, updating, distributing and selling datasets which the defendant has offered for sale and as complementary downloads to the public," Canada Post says in its statement of claim.
Lawyers for Geolytica, however, argue that the website developed its own database without using any information from Canada Post's database. Instead, individual users provided the information over the course of several years, much the same way they do on crowd-sourcing sites such as Wikipedia.
The case will likely hinge on whether such a reproduction of the Canada Post database – similar to the original but created without referencing it – constitutes copyright infringement.
The decision by a federal court may have wide-ranging implications for myriad businesses, which often keep their own databases of user information, including postal codes. Canada Post currently sells access to its database to businesses.
"Canada Post is not a federal department. We are a self-sustaining Crown corporation that relies on the revenues from the sale of its products and services," Canada Post said in a statement. "Just as other corporations would protect their brand, data, trademarks and intellectual property, we strive to do the same."
The GeoCoder website allows users to type in addresses, and then returns mapping information based on that input. But the site also uses that input to build its own database. For example, if a user types in a street address and a postal code, the site assumes the street address corresponds to that postal code. Over the years, and with enough user input, GeoCoder essentially managed to crowd-source its own postal code database.
"Geolytica created this database without ever accessing or copying any database of postal codes of the Canada Post Corporation," the site argues in a statement of defence.
"Canadians regularly and frequently write their postal codes on letters in order to indicate their factual locations. Canadians also frequently enter their full street address, including their postal codes, into online forms – all in a similar manner to the way users enter their full street address at geocoder.ca. These activities constitute no infringement of copyright."
Asked directly whether Canada Post believes it holds the copyright on Canadian postal codes, Anick Losier, Canada Post's director of communications, refused to comment "because of the ongoing litigation on that very matter."