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Canada Post says Geolytica's alleged copyright infringment means 'Canada Post has suffered and will continue to suffer a loss.' (CBC)

Canada Post has filed a lawsuit against an Ottawa-based geographic data company, alleging that the firm's collection of postal codes infringes on a copyright that Canada Post owns.

However, the defendant company, Geolytica Inc., denies the allegations and calls Canada Post's copyright claim an "absurd" one that would lead to copyright infringement on a "massive, near-universal scale" if recognized.

In a statement of claim filed in Federal Court in March, Canada Post claims it is the owner of copyright in an "original compilation of geographic, operational and postal data" called the CPC Database. It says Geolytica has infringed that copyright by "producing and reproducing, without consent,... the CPC Database and substantial parts thereof in course of the development, update, distribution and sale of the defendant's dataset products."

What can be copyrighted?

Under Canada's Copyright Act, copyright can apply to an original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic work.

The Supreme Court of Canada has decided that "original" means that an "exercise of skill and judgment" involving "intellectual effort" was used in the expression of an idea. Any "purely mechanical exercise" does not qualify for copyright protection.

The Crown corporation alleges that those actions mean "the defendant has made and will continue to make profits and Canada Post has suffered and will continue to suffer a loss." Canada Post normally charges a fee to license its postal code database, but it would not divulge to CBC News how much, saying it varies by case.

The statement of claim says Canada Post is seeking court action to:

  • Permanently stop Geolytica from distributing postal code data.
  • Recover damages linked to the alleged infringement.

The postal service didn't specify the amount of the damages it is seeking. Nor would it comment specifically on its claims. However, in an email statement, it said shipping requires accurate, up-to-date data and "it's a lot of time and money to get it right."

Geolytica is being legally represented by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, a technology law, policy and advocacy group based at the University of Ottawa. It filed a statement of defence Thursday denying the allegations and questioning Canada Post's copyright claim.

Database crowdsourced, Geolytica says

The defence statement says Geolytica has been independently compiling its own database of postal codes through crowdsourcing since 2004, by asking people to enter their postal codes when they used the company's free website, geocoder.ca, to look up the longitude and latitude of their street addresses. Geolytica now provides the data free for non-profit use, but offers fee-based services to commercial users. The company denies accessing or copying Canada Post's own database.

However, CIPPIC also alleges that postal codes are facts, not creative works, and therefore can't be copyrighted.

"The plaintiff's claim to copyright in the CPC Database would lead to absurd results," the statement says.

"Individual Canadians and businesses regularly and frequently collect and use postal codes in address books, mailing lists, customer lists, supplier lists and an infinite variety of lists. If the plaintiff's assertion of copyright in the CPC Database were well founded, all of these collections of addresses and the postal codes therein would reproduce parts of the CPC Database and so would infringe copyright."

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor whose research specializes in internet and copyright issues, wrote on his blog Friday that other marketers that have independently developed and marketed databases containing postal code information could face similar claims from Canada Post.

"Given the government's emphasis on open data," he added, "the federal government may have something to say about Canada Post's efforts to restrict public compilation and distribution of postal code information."

Geist acknowledged he sits on CIPPIC's advisory board, but said he hasn't been involved in the Geolytica case.