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Royal Mail loses database claim in 192.com dispute

192.com has defeated an attempt by Royal Mail to restrict the use of its database of UK addresses. The company said that if Royal Mail had won it would have "surreptitiously acquired rights to almost every customer database, from Pizza Hut to Barclays Bank."17 Feb 2004

Royal Mail took action against i-CD Publishing (UK) Ltd, the company behind 192.com and publisher of a directory known as the UK Info Directory, available on CD-ROM.

The directory, sourced from the Electoral Roll, details the names, addresses and telephone numbers of over 44 million UK individuals and businesses. I-CD's own marketing states that the addresses are "PAF-validated" for accuracy.

PAF stands for "postcode address file". It is a database maintained by Royal Mail as part of its statutory obligations under the Postal Services Act. The legislation also requires that the database be licensed by Royal Mail to third parties and on reasonable terms. But Royal Mail sued i-CD, arguing that it was using the database without a licence.

I-CD argued that its use was licensed because the PAF validation was carried out on i-CD's database by third parties that held a licence to use Royal Mail's PAF database.

In a decision of 13th February 2004, the High Court ruled that the PAF validation is licensed. It pointed to a clause in the agreements between Royal Mail and its licensees that permits the end user to use PAF to modify "existing mailing list databases". The court interpreted this as including any list of names and addresses, including those created by i-CD.

Alastair Crawford, CEO of i-CD and 192.com, said:

"This claim by Royal Mail is rather like the Oxford English Dictionary claiming rights to royalties from the Harry Potter books because J.K. Rowling checked her spelling in the dictionary; the only difference is that Royal Mail, and Royal Mail alone, actually benefits financially for every postally correct address that is published."

A statement from his company continued:

"Had Royal Mail's claim succeeded it would have had very wide implications for industry as a whole. Royal Mail was claiming rights in all name and address databases which include postally correct addresses. Since almost every customer database in the UK has at some stage been checked or validated against PAF, which is standard industry practice, Royal Mail would have surreptitiously acquired rights to almost every customer database, from Pizza Hut to Barclays Bank. Once a database has been validated against PAF it is almost impossible to reverse the process and Royal Mail could have asserted control over future use of all such databases."

Crawford concluded:

"We remain concerned that Royal Mail having lost the argument in Court may yet seek to hijack companies' mailing list databases by the introduction of new terms. I urge British businesses to be extremely vigilant about losing control of their valuable customer databases by having them validated against PAF."

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