The ONS Postcode Directory: Open Data, but Which Licence?
Post: 5 December 2013
Update 2 January 2014: I’ve received a response from ONS by e-mail. Please see the end of the post.
Which open data licence applies to ONS’s Postcode Directory: the Open Government Licence or the OS OpenData Licence?
Yesterday SK53, a prolific OpenStreetMap contributor, released a blog post on the subject of British postcodes. He made an argument for increasing the coverage of GB postcode information on OSM, noting that:
In 2010 postcode centroids were made available through the Ordnance Survey Open Data scheme, under the brand CodePoint Open. Subsequently it was found that the license associated with this data prevented it being used directly in OSM. More recently the Office of National Statistics have released an (identical) data set which is not encumbered by the license of CodePoint Open.
I’m not an OpenStreetMap contributor myself but I’ve been aware for some time that Ordnance Survey’s OS OpenData Licence presents difficulties for OSM. Although the OS OpenData Licence complies with the Open Definition and is in most respects the same as the Open Government Licence, it does contain some additional requirements on attribution and sub-licensing.
If the Office for National Statistics is now providing the same GB postcode data as Ordnance Survey, but under the Open Government Licence, that seems like a welcome resolution to the OSM problem.
But is that really the licensing position?
Code-Point Open vs the ONS Postcode Directory
At the moment there are two primary sources for the authoritative national geocoded postcode dataset. The first is the Code-Point Open download available from the Ordnance Survey website. The second is the series of Postcode Directory (ONSPD) downloads available from ONS’s Open Geography portal.
Most users will find the ONS portal to be the preferable source. The ONSPD downloads contain all of the Code-Point Open data, plus additional ONS fields. The ONS downloads are immediately available, whereas the Ordnance Survey supply is via a link sent to the requester’s e-mail address. The ONS downloads are provided in a choice of formats and, most importantly, ONS maintains an archive of previous releases rather than just the most recent.
If the ONS downloads are subject to the Open Government Licence, and not the OS OpenData Licence, that is another good reason to procure the data from ONS rather than from Ordnance Survey.
Postcodes and postcode coordinates are reference data, which means they are often incorporated in other data products that contain data from multiple sources. Leaving aside the particular issues for OSM, it’s always easier to build products from the most broadly re-usable data sources. The OGL is more widely used and understood and (slightly) less restrictive than the OS OpenData Licence, so it better supports the development of added-value data products.
Lack of clarity on licensing of ONS postcode datasets
The problem is that ONS is providing conflicting information about licensing for re-use of the Postcode Directory.
The Licences page on the main ONS website includes the following:
The ONS postcode products are subject to the Open Government Licence, and Ordnance Survey OpenData Licence.
That page predates the launch of the Open Geography portal. Licensing information on the Open Geography portal itself is not very well signposted; however the FAQs page includes a link back to the Licences page on the main site.
There is also licensing information included with the ONS Postcode Directory (ONSPD) downloads themselves, and that is the source of confusion. The version notes contain the following:
Copyright and reproduction
© Crown copyright 2013
You may re-use this information (not including logos) free of charge in any format or medium, under the terms of the Open Government Licence. However, the following attribution statements must be acknowledged or displayed on any product using ONS data:
‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2013’
‘Contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2013’
'Contains Royal Mail data © Royal Mail copyright and database right 2013'
Click here to view the Open Government Licence, or write to the Information Policy Team, The National Archives, Kew, London TW9 4DU
That statement confirms that the dataset includes Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail intellectual property, but the attribution requirements only go as far as those in the Open Government Licence. There is no explicit reference to the OS OpenData Licence or to the additional terms in that licence.
The same wording appears in the notes for previous versions of the ONSPD available from the Open Geography Portal.
The ONSPD downloads also include a metadata file, which does include the URL of the OS OpenData Licence:
Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 
However the metadata file is in XML format, which means some re-users of the data (particularly those who download the ONSPD as a ready-to-use Access database) will likely not notice it.
What is the actual licensing position?
It’s possible that Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail have agreed that their data may be re-used under the OGL when it is released as part of the ONS Postcode Directory. However if that is the case it’s not clear why OS has not also released Code-Point Open under OGL.
I think it is more likely that the ONSPD version notes are in error, and that the copyright section should include a reference to the OS OpenData Licence.
Where does that leave re-users? The OGL and OS OpenData are both open data licences, and the differences do not really affect the scope for direct re-use of the datasets. The potential for error lies mostly with businesses who may have incorporated ONSPD data in their own products, with the risk that downstream attribution does not adequately reflect the requirements of OS and Royal Mail.
Open data licences do not normally indemnify the licensee against a breach of third party IP rights. However any licensee who has relied on the ONS version notes in error will have done so in good faith. Harm to OS and Royal Mail is likely to be trivial, and given that both organisations work closely with ONS it could be argued that they have been insufficiently vigilant in not requiring a correction to the release notes.
However for OpenStreetMap there might be practical consequences. If contributors are encouraged to add ONSPD data onto OSM, and ONS subsequently clarifies that the OS OpenData Licence will apply going forward, OSM may have to take remedial action to stop the addition of further such data.
Update (2 January 2014)
I have today received an e-mail from ONS confirming that the version notes for the ONS Postcode Directory should refer to the OS OpenData Licence terms:
I’ve recently seen your blog (dated 5 December) regarding licensing of our ONSPD and the discrepancy between the Open Government Licence and OS OpenData Licence terms. You are quite correct; thank you for drawing it to our attention. There is an inconsistency between our Licence web page and information provided with the metadata. We will correct the metadata so that it meets the full requirements of OS Opendata. The Version Notes will also contain a statement drawing customers’ attention to the inconsistency and outline the correct position.
This action has been agreed with Ordnance Survey.