Greypages and a history of reverse phone searches in Australia

The concept of reverse phone lookups is not new to Australia. There have been number of reverse directories floating around since the 90’s in various forms. These directories have been known as the black pages, green pages, grey pages, DTMS, AustraliaOnDisc, AusLocate, and numerous other spin-offs over the years.

You might be wondering why these products generally haven’t stood the test of time. One of the earlier online directories was the Blackpages run by 2600. This directory was shut down in 2001 with the following notice placed on the page

In an Australian IT story covering blackpagesseveral weeks ago, an unnamed Telstra spokeswoman “said the information contained in the public number database was not copyrighted, and third parties were legally permitted to use it“. In the same story, we were quoted as saying “We’ve been ready to pull the database offline at the first sign of problems“. It appears that just such a problem has now arisen. We have been referred to a recently decided Federal Court case in which Telstra Corporation Limited claimed and was found to hold copyright on the white and yellow pages databases which it publishes. Given this apparent incongruity between the claims of Telstra Corporation spokespersons to the media and claims in Federal court about the copyright status of the white pages database, we turned off blackpages on Sunday, 10th June, 2001

The court case in question was between Telstra and Desktop Marketing Systems (DTMS) which decided that the product being sold was almost identical to the White Pages and was therefore in violation of copyright laws. The court case did not find the service of providing reverse lookups to be illegal, just that they were being sourced from a copyrighted source.

After the judgement and Blackpages deciding to not risk the heat there were a number of willing individuals all to happy to offer the same service. This included Mazzanet.id.au, greypag.es, greypages.com.au, the infamous boonghunter.com and a number of other vigilante services, none of which asked questions about their visitors intentions, and rather just focused on their existence.

Fast forward to 2009, the Nine Network sued IceTV for publishing part of their programming schedule. This was a very important case for copyright as it argued what constituted originality for copyright. Justice prevailed and IceTV was found not-guilty, which turned a previously grey area into a white area.

Later in 2010, Telstra flexed their legal muscles and decided to take on a competitor (Phone Directories Pty Ltd) over copyright claims. Phone Directories publishes directories similar to the White and Yellow Pages for a number of areas in Australia. Telstra’s attempt to shut down their competitor failed, with the court case citing the IceTV case. Telstra later appealed this case and lost, losing their copyright on their directory as they were unable to establish originality and authorship. The judge is quoted in saying

It would be absurd to assume that I am bound only to determine whether copyright subsists in the Works whilst ignoring any question of ownership. Copyright is a form of property created by statute for the benefit of the author or authors who, in the absence of some other arrangement, is the owner or are the owners of the work

This decision has opened up a market opportunity for grey pages services like Reverse Australia to exist.

You might have heard that it was illegal to perform reverse phone lookups in Australia. The reason for this misunderstanding is the Telecommunications Act 1997 which refers to the IPND (Integrated Public Number Database) which provides listing information for directory assistance and emergency services. As the White Pages and all derivitives are not sourced from the IPND, the data is not protected by the Telecommunications Act and therefore it is completely legal to do reverse searches.

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