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Royal Mail lawyers demand closure of postcode lookup site

Ernest Marples Postcodes Ltd loses will to live

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A UK postcode lookup service has been slapped with a cease and desist letter from the Royal Mail, forcing it to close down its website.

Until last Friday (2 October) North London-based Ernest Marples Postcodes Ltd had been providing web outfits with an API to power their sites that helped people search for information specific to their area.

However, the two-man operated site, which was launched by Richard Pope and Harry Metcalf in July this year, is currently declaring that it “has been disabled because of legal action.”

The Royal Mail confirmed to The Register that its lawyers had indeed sent out a letter to Ernest Marples Postcodes Ltd. It gave us this statement:

"We have not asked anyone to close down a website. We have simply asked a third party to stop allowing unauthorised access to Royal Mail data, in contravention of our intellectual property rights."

Ernest Marples Postcodes Ltd declined to reveal where it gets its data.

“We don’t hold a copy of the postcode database ourselves, neither in complete form nor as part of a cache,” it claims on its site.

It said that since being served with the letter, a number of services including Job Centre Pro Plus, which allows people to track down jobs in their local area, have been affected by the Royal Mail's take down request.

"We are not in a position to mount an effective legal challenge against the Royal Mail’s demands and therefore have closed the ErnestMarples.com API effective immediately," it said.

The Open Rights Group's executive director Jim Killock took the opportunity to have a dig at the Royal Mail.

“It’s outrageous that Royal Mail should be sacking workers and at the same time trying to close a service that might help them find work," he said yesterday.

Around 121,000 UK postal workers currently face the axe.

“Postcodes were created with public money, so they need to be used for the widest public benefit. Ernest Marples have been showing how this can be done. Their ideas need to be legalised for non-profit use, not shut down," he added. “Intellectual Property rules need to work for society, and not the other way round."

Other services affected by the Royal Mail's letter include Planning Alerts and The Straight Choice, both of which had been using Ernest Marples Postcodes Ltd's API.

As it currently stands, anyone wishing to use postcode data legally needs to annually cough up anything between £85 for a single use licence to £75,000 for a corporate licence.

In 2007 the Royal Mail made about £1.6m from licensing the Postcode Address File (PAF) database.

“It is easy to see that large numbers of small business ideas and not for profit services are being blocked by these licence fees - it is in effect a tax on innovation,” claimed Killock.

It's not clear at this stage if the Royal Mail plans to target other websites for being in "contravention" of its IP, but a simple search on Google brings up plenty of services offering UK postcode APIs. ®

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