Save Ernest Marples

If you’ve ever developed or been involved with a website that uses UK postcode data, you already know about the fees Royal Mail charges to use their database. This is great for Royal Mail (it earns them roughly £1.3 million a year), but for websites that are providing a public service that requires postcode-based geodata, it’s a nightmare.

Earlier this year, a few people decided to do something about this and created ErnestMarples.com, which provides a postcode API to not-for-profit websites such as PlanningAlerts.com, Jobcentre Pro Plus and The Straight Choice.

Last week, Royal Mail issued a cease and desist letter to ErnestMarples.com, effectively shutting down not only ErnestMarples.com, but all of the sites that depend on their API.

This has been covered elsewhere by the Open Rights Group, Tom Watson, The Guardian Free Our Data blog and Boing Boing. Since they’ve already done a stellar job of discussing the issues surrounding this story, I’ll keep the rest of this short:

This whole thing makes no sense to me. The postcode database was created with public money, yet Royal Mail demands exorbitant license fees for the use (or perceived use) of postcode data from sites that are providing a free public service.

If you’re as baffled by this as I am, I encourage you to sign the petition, which asks the Prime Minister “to Encourage the Royal Mail to offer a free postcode database to non-profit and community websites.”

Update: You can also vote for a free postcode database on the OSPI site.

(Thanks to Joe Lanman, who pointed me in the direction of a recent thread on the MySociety mailing list and got me thinking about this issue.)