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Is Stealing Content a Violation of the Realtor Code of Ethics?

From the 2008 Realtor Code of Ethics : Article 12 REALTORS ® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations Copyright and stealing are basic concepts that should be easily understood by even the newest writer/blogger/Realtor. If the Code of Ethics requires that we as Realtors present a true picture in all that we do, be it online, print, etc. doesn’t it stand to reason that blatantly plagiarizing someone else’s work product is a clear, enforceable and actionable Code of Ethics violation?

From the 2008 Realtor Code of Ethics : Article 12 REALTORS ® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations Copyright and stealing are basic concepts that should be easily understood by even the newest writer/blogger/Realtor. If the Code of Ethics requires that we as Realtors present a true picture in all that we do, be it online, print, etc. doesn't it stand to reason that blatantly plagiarizing someone else's work product is a clear, enforceable and actionable Code of Ethics violation?

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I don’t have any sympathy or understanding anymore for those who make conscious and deliberate decisions to steal other Realtor’s work.

From the 2008 Realtor Code of Ethics:

Article 12

REALTORS® shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing, and other representations

Copyright and stealing are basic concepts that should be easily understood by even the newest writer/blogger/Realtor. If the Code of Ethics requires that we as Realtors present a true picture in all that we do, be it online, print, etc. doesn’t it stand to reason that blatantly plagiarizing someone else’s work product is a clear, enforceable and actionable Code of Ethics violation?

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If agents get so worked up about the use of others’ MLS photos and ad copy without permission (even though some MLS licenses permit such use), where is the outrage when Realtors copy others’ work product? Stealing others’ content is not a matter of misunderstanding the concept, it is a matter of wanting to benefit from someone else’s work?

Maybe I am most upset today because the inspiration for this post is a fellow Realtor from my area (who has already taken down the offending post).

If you’re a real estate blogger, you’d do well to stop by Creative Commons, educate yourself and license your work.

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Written By

Dad, Husband, Charlottesville Realtor, real estate Blogger, occasional speaker - Inman Connects, NAR Conferences - based in Charlottesville, Virginia. A native Virginian, I graduated from VMI in 1998, am a third generation Realtor (since 2001) and have been "publishing" as a real estate blogger since January 2005. I've chosen to get involved in Realtor Associations on the local, state & national levels, having served on the NAR's RPR & MLS groups. Find me in Charlottesville, Crozet and Twitter.

34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Chad A. Johnson

    May 28, 2008 at 9:14 am

    Thank you for associating the Code of Ethics with plagiarism. There are too many people who want to business benefits of blogging without taking the time and effort to creative their own work. If you can’t be ethical with your blogging, give it up and focus on other marketing channels.

  2. Michael Wurzer

    May 28, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Having been the target of thieves just like you mention, I completely agree with you. If the criminal and civil laws don’t make it clear enough, simple common sense should inform people that blatant copying of someone else’s work is wrong. I guess some people are so intent on seeking the easy route they get blinded to basic morality.

  3. Matthew Rathbun

    May 28, 2008 at 9:32 am

    My impression would be that the article 12 does apply -or- could be made to apply; however, I think that litigation would prove more of a deterant.

    The issue is getting agents motivated to actually write the complaint…

  4. Jim Duncan

    May 28, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Despite the fact that it’s been taken down, I’m still debating filing an ethics complaint. Just because it’s gone doesn’t mean it didn’t happen (and I have a PDF of the page/post too) 🙂

  5. Chris Shouse

    May 28, 2008 at 9:48 am

    I think you should file a complaint Jim, there is so much out there to write about I do not understand stealing other peoples work. It takes a lot of thought and work to write a post, take pictures and research if you need to. Maybe your filing a complaint would stop some of this.

  6. Benn Rosales

    May 28, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Stealing is a violation of any ethical standard, so I hope it’s a violation.

  7. Teresa Boardman

    May 28, 2008 at 9:53 am

    I think stealing is a violation of the code of ethics and what Benn said too.

  8. Daniel Rothamel, The Real Estate Zebra

    May 28, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Forget the Code of Ethics, what about the Ethics of Man?

    Personally, I think that personal property crimes should be some of the more harshly punished crimes in our society. That includes intellectual personal property crimes. Lack of respect for another’s personal property is just a short step away from lack of respect for another’s person.

  9. Jay Thompson

    May 28, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Jim – I saw the post you’re referencing. Tried leaving a comment, but you had to register to leave comments (and there was no way to register). There also was no contact info on the offending blog.

    *sigh*

    My kids learned in what, first grade, that you don’t just blindly copy other people’s work. I don’t understand how ANYONE can think it’s acceptable.

  10. Matthew Rathbun

    May 28, 2008 at 10:16 am

    You guys laugh at me every time I bring this up, but I ain’t a kiddin! All of us AG’ers and our friends on Twitter should rally together and every time we hear of this happening, we should go flood the offenders blog with comments about stealing other people’s material.

    I mean seriously, wouldn’t they get the point after a bunch of us copied ARticle 12 in their comments about 20 times – each? Cattle rustlers….

  11. Jay Thompson

    May 28, 2008 at 10:17 am

    @Matthew – the problem with litigating plagiarism is it is extremely difficult to prove damages. Does stealing one post really damage someone (from a legal perspective), and if so, how is it quantified?

    Yes, it’s wrong, and horribly unethical. (Not to mention just plain old stupid). But going to court and proving damages is costly, time consuming, and unfortunately, not terribly effective (at least according to a couple of attorneys I’ve talked with).

    It may sound crass, but “public shame” may be the most effective punishment. And if local associations would fine offenders, that would help tremendously. Local associations could enact provisions to slap fines on these losers and it would be much more timely and efficient than pursuing court action.

  12. Ines

    May 28, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Plagiarism is just not acceptable and IMO is definitely a COE violation. I’m liking Matthew’s idea of bombarding the offender’s post. I’ve had floorplans taken, content taken, photographs taken…..and although I have not sued anyone because they have taken the material down, it’s still offensive. The last one was someone from LiveJournal.com and it took them over a month to remove the offenders from the forum.

    The queen of litigating plagiarism is Lenn Harley who can make a living in collecting damages.

  13. Jonathan Dalton

    May 28, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Took me a few minutes yesterday before I realized what had happened … had two trackbacks to a post, read the stolen one first, then later in the day clicked on Michael’s and realized I’d seemed to have read all of this before.

    Some agents are so desperate to blog because they “have to” that they never figure out the concept of right and wrong. Maybe they think no one ever will notice, maybe they think no one will care.

  14. Mack in Atlanta

    May 28, 2008 at 11:06 am

    In May of 2006 this same topic came up on another forum. At that time I contacted Mike Theil, an attorney at NAR to get his take on copying content. At that time he felt that any ethics violation would have to be addressed under article 12. The main problem is that it is not addressed explicitly and is open to interpretation by the local board. The opinion that we arrived at in that forum was to inform the offending party of DMCA Law and make them aware that it carries a lot more weight than the REALTOR Code of Ethics.

    @Matthew Rathbun-I like your idea of flooding the comments section of the blog but the offending cattle rustler would just moderate them and remove or delete the comment.

  15. Matthew Rathbun

    May 28, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Jay – your point is well taken. I am not a big fan of legal action, but I am less of a fan of people who swipe someone’s works. But, I do see where the damages being worth the trouble… sigh

    Mack – what makes you think that I was only targeting the post that was stolen? If they want to moderate delete 100 comments all over their post each time they steal something – so be it 🙂

  16. Mack in Atlanta

    May 28, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Matthew – Thinking it through, a commenter would have to leave a comment that would be moderated and accepted, then they could add additional comments with out moderation and post the code of ethics on every post if they so desired. It would make the cattle rustlers life a bit hectic don’t you think?

  17. Aria Schoenfelt, Austin Luxury Homes

    May 28, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks for the post, Jim.

    I was just talking with a client the other day who had a lazy Realtor last time and I think everyone on here knows about how that conversation went. We were talking about listing photos because most people love mine. Like Teresa, I have a passion for photography and photographic gadgets. I take great pride in my listing photos as well as other photos that I take.

    There was a post at RealTown once that I suffered through after my mandatory e-PRO sign-up and I’m SO glad I found some intelligence in the Real Estate Industry here because that place drives me nuts.

    Anyway, that post at RealTown was started by an agent who was asked (probably not so nicely) by a previous listing agent to stop using her photos. The current listing agent refused thinking that the photos belonged to the listing, not the agent.

    So what if your MLS claims ownership of listing photos? Don’t federal US copyright laws trump and MLS board policies? I know that if I paid a couple grand for professional photos that I wouldn’t want the next listing agent to use them and I’m sure the photographer would want the next listing agent to pay for them as well. I may not be a professional photographer, but as someone who takes great pride in the quality of my photos, the time and energy I take to produce them, and the time and money I put into my photographic equipment, that I don’t want the next agent using my photos (especially in a world where so many lazy agents are out there). And if professional photographers know that the photos would be listed in an MLS who allows the next listing agent to use any “MLS photos,” do you really think they’d be happy?

    I know many agents take their listing’s photos down after the property has sold. I haven’t done this yet, but I haven’t been in the game that long.

    How hard is it to get your own photos? There’s a company in Austin that will do a ton of photos with 4 virtual tour type views for under $100. If you have no photographic talent, is $100 really too much to spend to have someone else do all the work for you?

    Don’t be stupid, take your own photos!

  18. Thomas Johnson

    May 28, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    It’s just like trying to prove procuring cause. The COE is there for the advertising, not to actually have a local board enforce anything. Heck, the enforcing panel might be in the same boat someday….
    Winky Dinky.

  19. Daniel Bates

    May 28, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    A fellow Realtor stole one of my articles once, I was fuming too! I wrote them and they claimed that an assistant did it, apologized, and removed it. Writing quality articles is hard work and I hate people that would rather steal than simply say “AgentGenius just wrote a great article about X” and offer a link.

  20. Sue

    May 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    IMO steeling of any kind is a violation. I agree with Jay that “public shame” unfortunately is probably the only way we can deal with this in a practical manner with all things considered. I hope to never have to be involved in anything like this.

  21. Bill Lublin

    May 30, 2008 at 7:14 am

    Jim;

    I would agree with the earlier commentators that plagarism should be considered a violation for Article 12, but there is no specific standard of practice exemplifying the issue, and I don’t believe that there is a case study currently clarifying this.

    Would you mind putting together a letter to Cliff about the post and detailing the issue of plaigarism in real estate publications and electronic communications? I will ask that the issue of stolen content be raised at the next meeting of the Interpretations and Procedures Sub-Comittee of Professional Standards. You know that we have been wrestling with issues revolving around electronic communications, and frankly, this specfic item just had not yet been brought up. Perhaps discussing it there might bring some clarity to the issue vis a vis the Code.

    @Thomas Johnson – the Code can’t be effective if we don’t bring offenders up on charges when they transgress. Have a little faith that the panel is usually pretty dedicated, and might be as honest as you – in fact if you wished, you could probably serve on panels in your local board with the required training.

    @Jay I hate to disagree with you, but if we can get this brought to some kind of clarity, and ethics violation would be quicker and more impactful then anything besides all of us getting into matthew’s car and throwing eggs at the offender’s house 😉

  22. Jim Duncan

    May 30, 2008 at 7:54 am

    Bill –

    There may be a case study in the near future. 🙂

    I’ll email Cliff.

    If stolen content isn’t covered, what good is the CoE? (mildly hyperbolic) The CoE shouldn’t need to speak to each type of theft or violation in order to be effective.

    Jay said a while ago

    Do we really need 7,373 words to tell us how to act?

    Another thought – if Realtors don’t publicize ethics violations/punishments, what good are said punishments with regards to the public?

  23. Daniel Bates

    June 20, 2008 at 10:18 am

    After reading your post I decided to contact my local Association of Realtors about an article blatantly plagiarized from my site onto a fellow Realtors (It was about a movie filmed in my area and they actually included a picture of my wife and Kevin Costner). They basically told me that I’d have to fill out this form and then testify against them. What Realtor has time to deal with that? I handed them all the proof they needed and they still refused to do there job, so I wrote back and told them that they weren’t doing their job and handled the plagiarizer the same way I have several times before.

    I wrote them a mean and scathing email to remove with 12 hours or they’d be hearing from my attorney. Because they are a rather well known company (not a nobody) I also decided to add that I wanted an apology posted on their site explaining what they had done to deceive the public…we’ll see what happens.

  24. Sue

    June 20, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Dan, you might get quicker action by calling the Broker/Manager of the office where that realtor works. Including a picture of your wife?!!….thats pretty blatant.

  25. Daniel Bates

    June 20, 2008 at 11:01 am

    The broker wrote back “did we not give you credit?” He removed the post, but never apologized and when I asked for an official apology on his websites, he said “enjoy yourself”…So I will be contacted the Real Estate Licensing Commission and the NAR.

  26. Lani Anglin-Rosales

    June 20, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Daniel, I have mixed feelings about the outcome of your situation. It seems you’ve won by having the content removed and that you’re going for the jugular because (as you indicated), they’re not a little guy so you feel you can punch hard and they should publicly grovel.

    On the other hand, if someone comes into my house and steals my jewelry but I press charges when they are caught, just because I got my jewelry back doesn’t mean they didn’t commit theft or that I wouldn’t expect at least a *short* jail sentence.

    What do you think? I’m torn here.

  27. Daniel Bates

    June 20, 2008 at 11:25 am

    What I meant was that if mom-and-pop-blogger want to steal a few lines from my post without giving me credit I don’t really mind because they’re not profiting from it. When a company in my market, competing for the same customers as me, steals my material to make themselves appear knowledgeable about the area then that that does upset me. It takes all of us more time out of our schedules to find these articles, write the authors, and check back that the post is removed than it does it takes the thieves to steal the material, profit from it, then remove it from their site. Of course I’m not even including the time it takes to produce a well-written post. Like many have said before, I feel that without a punishment, people will continue to do it over and over again and the good guys will have to keep spinning our wheels and writing emails asking them to remove it.

  28. Jim Duncan

    June 20, 2008 at 11:42 am

    They basically told me that I’d have to fill out this form and then testify against them. What Realtor has time to deal with that?

    Not many, but I chose to go this route, because if we as Realtors choose not to use the system available to us, the system becomes worthless.

    I did just what you were told to do – I filled out the ethics complaint form, provided proof and documentation and I’m waiting – and it’s been almost a month and I’ve heard nothing. The stolen content to which I was referring was taken down, but as Lani said, just because it’s gone doesn’t mean it wasn’t stolen.

    The size of the company, frankly to me, is irrelevant. What’s wrong is wrong. If the mom-and-pop blogger steals a few lines without attribution – it’s still wrong.

    Also, send a DMCA request to them and their host – I’d start here and here.

    I feel that without a punishment, people will continue to do it over and over again and the good guys will have to keep spinning our wheels and writing emails asking them to remove it.

    You sound like me making my arguments against Dual Agency. 🙂

    Shoot, I’m tempted to tell you to take a snapshot of their page with your content and write a post about the incident itself.

  29. Sue

    June 20, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Its still wrong even though they took down the post…this is true. Is it possible that the realtor didn’t realize that what they did was very wrong?…or am I being ridiculously niave? Certainly the Broker knows it was wrong and the response from that Broker should’ve been apologetic instead of sarcastic.

  30. Jim Duncan

    June 20, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Sue –

    Who doesn’t know that plagiarizing is wrong? And is that a legitimate excuse?

    If I withheld a latent defect in a house I was marketing, would “I didn’t know” be sufficient? Again, if we don’t use the systems we have in place, what good are they?

  31. Sue

    June 20, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Jim, when put in terms of “plagiarizing” people know its wrong, but there are some that may not understand it or think about it…or perhaps they’ve seen blog posts with other’s info on it and who knows if they were plag’ing or gave appropriate credit… ?? Its just such a stupid thing to do, I guess I find it hard to believe and am trying to find a logical explanation, which obviously doesn’t exist.

  32. Jim Duncan

    June 21, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Sue –

    And that’s the thing. Unless plagiarizing is treated and regarded as such, it will be relegated to “oh, it’s just a blog,” or “what’s the big deal,” or “and?” responses.

    Stupidity is an explanation, but not an excuse. 🙂

  33. Sue

    June 21, 2008 at 8:34 am

    Do we know if this realtor has plagiarized before? Here its a long hard road to take action as I’ve looked into it myself. Not for plagiarizing, but actions that I would consider to be just as bad involved with transactions. There were several other realtors at different times that experienced similar problems with the same realtor….multiple offender. We let it go because we were led to believe that it would just be a big headache with no result.

    What about JIm’s suggestion…

    “Shoot, I’m tempted to tell you to take a snapshot of their page with your content and write a post about the incident itself.”

  34. Angie Yates-Wycoff

    July 22, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Thank you for this article. I am currently dealing with another realtor that has taken my photos of a listing that I sold a year ago. Not only are they my photos they also have my clients belongs in the photo. How disgusting 🙁

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