Canada’s futile quest to own postal codes: why governments should make data a public good

It’s already been an embarrassing few months for Canada. First, there was the heist at the strategic maple syrup reserve and then the country printed the wrong national symbol on its money. Now, Canada risks further ridicule by doubling down on a campaign to own basic postal data.

In case you missed it, Canada Post last year filed a copyright lawsuit against a small company that publishes postal codes (the Canadian equivalent of zip codes) on its website, Geocoder. The company, Geolytics, created a database of codes — such as H4B 5G0 or V6B 6G1 — through crowdsourcing, which it gives away for free to non-profits and also licenses to businesses.

Critics quickly blasted Canada Post’s lawsuit as an overreaching attempt to assert copyright over basic facts. Nonetheless, the agency continues to push on. This month, it made a concession — but one that appears more strategic than substantial.

According to the National Post, the agency is now providing access to its database of postal codes — but only the first three digits, which provide broad but not specific locations. Canada Post also insists that anyone who use those digits include a note saying the data was copyrighted.

While the partial data release may be useful to marketers, Canada Post still won’t drop its claim against Geolytics or others who would use the postal codes. In doing so, Canada Post is going against the grain of a growing belief advocated by The Economist and others that government data is a public good that can foster knowledge and commerce. The city of Palo Alto in California, for instance, is turning all of its data into an open platform that allows anyone to tap into a stream of information about zoning, housing, city finances and more.

“The rest of the Canadian government is moving directly in the direction of Palo Alto and making data available publicly,” says David Fewer, the director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic which is representing Geolytics in the lawsuit.

Fewer says the agency’s decision to publish the first three letters of the postal codes is likely a “sop” to deflect criticism as it tries to turn its data into a revenue stream.

“Canada Post clearly regards my client as a direct competitor,” he said.

While the rest of the Canadian government may support public data, Canada Post can do what it likes because it is an independent Crown Corporation — a peculiar Canadian species of public corporation intended to advance national interests. Canada Post’s attempt to collect copyright revenue may be an effort to avoid the fate of the American postal service which is on the brink of insolvency.

From a legal perspective, however, Canada Post’s efforts are likely hopeless because it’s not possible to copyright facts. While it is possible to get protection for compilations, Canada Post’s compilation of geolocation symbols does not reflect any creative effort that would merit protection.