Wednesday 8 July 2009

Post codes and the database right

At opentech 2009 Harry Metcalfe presented the idea for a site (which I will call Ernest Marples) to convert postcodes into latitude and longitude pairs. Ingeniously, the site does not store any data itself, instead it scrapes a number of other sites for the information and returns the result. Does this get around the Royal Mail's database right in the postcode database? Sadly, I do not think it does.

Let us ignore for the moment whether the site breaches any terms and conditions of the sites that it is scraping for its data. The identity of those sites is a secret so although there amy be a question mark over the legality of the scraping, to say any more would be to theorise without data. Instead I want to focus on the database right.

In the 1990's it became clear that, in a number of EC/EU member states, that collections of information could not necessarily be protected by copyright. For example in the Dutch case of Van Daele v Romme a publisher was unable to prevent the copying of all the words in its dictionary. A similar position was reached in the United States where the Supreme Court decided in Feist that a telephone directory could not be subject to copyright.

The eventual result was Directive 96/9/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the legal protection of databases. Chapter III of the directive creates a thing called the "sui generis right". The core of that right can be found in article 7(1):

Member States shall provide for a right for the maker of a database which shows that there has been qualitatively and/or quantitatively a substantial investment in either the obtaining, verification or presentation of the contents to prevent extraction and/or re-utilization of the whole or of a substantial part, evaluated qualitatively and/or quantitatively, of the contents of that database.
As you can see a lot of alternatives are being packed in. If all that you remember is that the focus is substantial investment you will not go far wrong. Roughly speaking, lots of investment implies protection. To unpack a little: the substantiality of the investment can be qualitative (it took real skill to select just these poems) or quantitative (we spent many person years walking to every grid point and photographing it). That investment can be in verification and presentation as well as collection.

The right allows a rights holder to prevent either:

  • extraction; or
  • reutilisation
Of a substantial part of the database.

Ernest Marples is not extracting a substantial part of the database, but I'm less sure about re-utilisation. The term "re-utilization" is defined in article 7(2)(b) to mean:

any form of making available to the public all or a substantial part of the contents of a database by the distribution of copies, by renting, by on-line or other forms of transmission.
Is that what Ernest Marples site is doing? On the one hand Ernest Marples only hands out single (postcode, co-ordinate) pairs and so it could be argued that it is not making the whole of the database available at any one time. On the other hand a member of the public can query any postcode and Ernest Marples is almost certain to be able to return a result for it.

It may be that the drafters of the directive saw Ernest Marples coming because they added an additional form of infringement in article 7(5):

The repeated and systematic extraction and/or re-utilization of insubstantial parts of the contents of the database implying acts which conflict with a normal exploitation of that database or which unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the maker of the database shall not be permitted.
Roughly speaking: lots of insubstantial extractions etc may add up to a substantial one. When exactly? That was just the question that the Swedish Supreme Court in Fixures Marketing v AB Svenska and the Court of Appeal of England and Wales in British Horseracing Board v William Hill wanted to know. The European Court of Justice explained to them that the purpose of article 7.5 is exactly to prevent someone getting around 7.1. If the effect of the repeated extractions or re-utilzations would have the same negative effect on the maker of the database as a breach of 7.1 (if all the extractions etc had been done all at once), then that is a breach of 7.5.

I think Ernest Marples is probably caught by 7.5 even if he gets away with avoiding 7.1. Article 8 does provide a defence for lawful users of the database but that is even more fraught a line of argument (if you thought 7 was badly drafted, have a read of 8 and try and work out what its meant to do). There is some doubt, but not enough to make Ernest Marples's method your business plan.

As Harry explained at opentech, part of the purpose of the site is political. There is a strong body of opinion that the Royal Mail should not have a monoploy on this extremely important database. If Ernest Marples is sued that will generate terrible publicity for the Royal Mail (as it should).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is it not the case that the ECJ's decision in British Horseracing Board v. William Hill explicitly exlude databases of which their content is created as opposed to obtained from protection under database right? If this interpretation is correct, Royal Mail can't rely on database right to protect its postcode database.