Thursday, July 14, 2005

Letter to John Reid, Information Commissioner of Canada

Note: Corrections unfortunately not included in the email sent to John Reid in square brackets.

To: John Reid, Information Commissioner of Canada

From: Ian Marsman

I direct your attention to the website of National Resources Canada, in particular, to the section of the site dealing with downloads of place name data. The data in question deals with populated areas and geological features and includes for each place information including latitude and longitude, province, type of location, etc. In order for a Canadian citizen or anyone else for that matter to gain access to the whole dataset a fee must be paid and a licensing agreement must be agreed to. The fee to be paid ranges from $70 for information about obsolete place names to $660 for the complete dataset. The licensing agreement (called a "sales agreement" on the link to the agreement file) reads like a software end user licensing agreement and includes restrictions on usage, referring to additional licensing that must be obtained if the data is to be accessed from a centralized server. I have a few questions.
  • Is it legal to charge a Canadian citizen [for data] whose collection has already been paid for by Canadian taxpayers (I am both a Canadian citizen and taxpayer)?
  • Is it legal to place restrictions on the legal usage of the data, restrictions that seem to be designed to extract additional revenue?
I would like to point out that the United States government makes available at no cost downloads of data for US place names and for place names for other countries, including Canada. I have not found any mention of any sort of limitations on legal usage for this data. Why in the world should National Resources Canada charge me for data on place names in my own country while the US govenment provides similar (probably not as comprehensive) data without charge?

I am interested in using data on place names in Canada, the US, and possibly Mexico for a web-based business I am in the process of starting. I will be selling identification cards, posters, games, and other things relating to insects one can find in North America. My target audience is educators and amateur naturalists. In addition to the products I will be charging for I will be providing a service whereby people can submit places where one can find diffferent insects. This information will be available for free. Additional free services may include submission of insect sightings and display of sightings in the context of maps using Googles map service and their freely available map API. The idea is to be able to make a living and also to get people more interested in insects and in issues such as biodiversity and the effects of human enterprise on the natural world. If I am unable to obtain Canadian place name data for free or for the cost of to Natural Resources Canada of downloading I will use the data freely available from the US government. I will then be in the ironic position of providing much better service to Americans than to Canadians, since the US data will be much more comprehensive.

Why is Natural Resources Canada getting in the way of educational and legitimate business usages of Canadian Place name data by Canadians, data whose collection has already been paid for by the Canadian citizen and taxpayer? I could understand a small charge to offset the cost of data storage and transmission bandwidth, but the fees charged and restrictions on usage made don't match this sort of cost-recovery strategy. I'd finally like to note that I wrote [to Natural Resources Canada] a few years ago asking why Natural Resources Canada charges for this data and received a reply that in effect said that this was their policy. This correspondence occurred in the context of my interest in using the data for a course I was teaching at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, British Columbia. I ended up using the American data. I would appreciate your timely investigation of this matter and reply as to your planned actions. Thank-you very much for your time and attention to this matter.