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$81M lawsuit claims Zillow illegally scrapes real estate listing pics

(BUSINESS NEWS) Real estate giant Zillow is being sued by a California photographer who intimates that the company has scraped the images without anyone’s permission.

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zillow sued by gutenberg represented by mathew higbee of higbee associates

California photographer, George Gutenberg filed a lawsuit today against Zillow, alleging copyright violations for their use of his real estate photos, indicating that Zillow scrapes images from Multiple Listing Services (MLSs) rather than using listing data syndicated to them.

Court documents request a bench trial, damages (plus attorney’s fees and court costs), and that Zillow stop using Gutenberg’s copyrighted images. Under 17 U.S.C. § 504, Gutenberg is seeking “an amount to be proven or, in the alternative, at Plaintiff’s election, an award for statutory damages against Defendant in an amount up to $150,000.00 for each infringement pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §
504(c), whichever is larger.”

If Gutenberg were to win, Exhibit A of the lawsuit cites 543 images in question across 17 listings on Zillow, which would total $81,450,000 or more.

The issue of real estate photography copyrights has long been convoluted. There are six stakeholders that have consistently argued that they own images used in real estate listings: homeowners, real estate photographers, the listing agent, the broker, MLSs, and real estate listing websites.

The argument that homeowners own the rights to images taken of their property has very little merit, and we have uncovered no copyright lawsuits that a homeowner has won regarding photography.

One can see why an agent or broker believes they have the right to the images they’ve paid for, but those parties don’t always read their photographer’s agreement prior to paying their invoice, while MLSs and websites have slid into their Terms of Service that they own the copyright once it is uploaded to their servers (be it directly or via syndication).

But what is different about Gutenberg’s position than many others is that he retains the copyright to all photographs taken of each property, allowing the agent a “limited license to use the photographs for up to one-year purposes of marketing the property.”

Wouldn’t that include Zillow? Nope.

The license “expressly states that it is not transferrable and prohibits third party use without permission from Gutenberg.”

Unlike many photographers, Gutenberg actually registers his images with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Mathew Higbee of Higbee and Associates issued the following statement to The American Genius:

“Mr. Gutenberg has a robust working relationship with many top real estate agents in southern California and across the nation. Mr. Gutenberg’s clients gladly pay to license his work knowing that Mr. Gutenberg’s high-quality photographs and signature style add significant value to their listings. In addition to real estate listings, Mr. Gutenberg also licenses of his photographs for editorial and commercial use in print and online publications, advertisements, and retail and commercial businesses.

The agents that engage Mr. Gutenberg understand that they are permitted to use his photographs for the limited purpose of promoting their real estate listing, which includes placing the photographs on the MLS. Content placed on the MLS is only available for the life of the listing and is immediately removed when the listing is sold or otherwise taken off the market. Mr. Gutenberg is not aware of any of his real estate clients directly syndicating his photographs to Zillow, nor is Mr. Gutenberg aware of any of his real estate clients exceeding the scope of rights granted in their individual licensing agreements with him.

Rather, it appears that Zillow, owner of the largest real estate website in the world, indiscriminately copies millions of photographs per day off of the MLS in an effort to build what they refer to as their ‘Living Database of All Homes,’ which Zillow has leveraged into multi-billion dollar company. Zillow’s unlawful copying comes at the expense of creators and rights holders such as Mr. Gutenberg who depend on payment of reasonable licensing fees by those who exploit their works.”

The implication is that the clients are not in violation of the copyright if they didn’t syndicate listings to Zillow or upload them directly. A claim that is far heavier than a standard copyright lawsuit, and stands to call into question Zillow’s practices.

The internet has long changed how people copyright images, who owns them, what agreements each party enters as they upload and/or syndicate data to third party sites. This isn’t the first lawsuit of this nature, nor the last.

We’ll keep you updated as this lawsuit progresses.

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Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

Real Estate Corporate

Zillow Group sued for being inaccessible to the visually impaired

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow has been sued for their numerous sites being inaccessible by popular screen readers – what do the Plaintiffs want the company to do next?

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Two visually impaired Massachusetts women have banded together to sue Zillow for their sites allegedly being inaccessible to the blind and visually impaired.

Filed in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, the lawsuit claims that Zillow Group is in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), asserting that their sites are not compatible with the most common computer screen reader programs, which the visually impaired rely upon in order to access information online.

Court documents sate that this failing “deprives blind and visually-impaired individuals the benefits of its online goods, content, and services — all benefits it affords nondisabled individuals — thereby increasing the sense of isolation and stigma among these Americans that Title III was meant to redress.”

The Plaintiffs cite tools utilized to attempt to use the sites – Apple’s VoiceOver technology, JAWS and NVDA software. Accessibility experts tell us that JAWS and NVDA are the two most common tools in America used for this purpose.

The core of the problem is readability – for example, if a button is an image (of say a search icon) but has no text or alt text, the screen readers cannot read them, therefore the visually impaired cannot use that feature.

Image source: court documents.

Further, the Plaintiffs assert that Zillow Group “has long known” that these screen reader technologies are necessary and that they are legally responsible for providing them, but offers no evidence that the company “has long known,” aside from the fact that Title III isn’t a new law.

The lawsuit did not acknowledge possible attempts to use any other real estate search site, nor their existence.

What do the Plaintiffs want?

Their list is long and fascinating. Aside from the standard request for payment of “actual, statutory, and punitive damages as the court deems proper,” along with attorneys fees and court costs, they demand that Zillow Group do the following:

  • Hire a Web Accessibility Consultant (WAC) and incorporate all of the recommendations within 60 days of receiving them.
  • Train certain staff on accessibility.
  • Submit to a quarterly usability test and a period audit.
  • Create a web accessibility policy, provide that policy to certain staff.
  • Make a public statement on the policy, with an accessible contact form and feedback option.
  • Immediately escalate all usability calls to properly trained staff.
  • Submit to a two year monitoring period.
  • It remains unknown if the Plaintiffs intend on pursuing action against any other websites (real estate search portals, brokers, and the like), and as of publication, Plaintiff’s representatives have not responded to our request for comment.

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Real Estate Corporate

$60M lawsuit alleges Zillow listings can be hijacked

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow has long been a data powerhouse, but a lawsuit about a $150M listing offers a look into listings claims.

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belair zillow listing lawsuit

Once called “the most expensive house in the US,” 924 Bel Air Road is a California jewel, crafted by famed homebuilder, Bruce Makowsky. And it’s currently on the market for a cool $150 million.

The only problem is, that according to Zillow, on February 04, it sold for $110M, there was an open house on February 08 that never existed, and although the errors were corrected by Zillow, the listing again was marked as sold on February 09 for $90.5M, corrected, and sold again the very next day for $94.3M.

The property owner is currently suing Zillow for $60M, alleging that the company “admittedly published false information, through its own website,” and “is disseminating misleading, false, and inaccurate information that has a large prominence because of Zillow’s market power.”

Further, the Plaintiff offers email evidence wherein Zillow acknowledged that they were “aware of the issue,” complaining that the false data was not immediately removed, rather took a week.

How did all of this happen?

A false claim of ownership.

Initially, a Chinese IP address with the email 910028863@qq.com (and a phone number whose area code does not exist) claimed the listing, and although Zillow requires a verification process, the lawsuit alleges that anyone that attempts to claim the property enough times can anticipate the questions “and be able to figure out what information they need to verify their identity.”

Later, on February 14th, “andersgraff@icloud.com” attempted to alter sales information. It is not immediately clear to us if this email address is associated with the previous claim, faked, or if multiple individuals have attempted to claim the address. Zillow’s policy is to notify the original party claiming a listing if there is a dispute, so “andersgraff” could be the original user’s second attempt. Or not.

They allege that Zillow does not have any safeguards in place, and that they “knew or should have known that trolls, criminals, and persons illegally claiming ownership of property and falsely contending it was sold that could easily bypass their standard questions to ‘claim a home’ and post false information.”

“It was reasonably foreseeable that this would happen,” the lawsuit alleges. “Yet, the Defendants have done nothing about it and simply do not care about the homeowners they hurt in the process.”

That last bit is a little floral, but their point is taken.

So what is the solution here?

Zillow has always allowed homeowners to claim their address, update information to improve accuracy of the data, and correct any information; it has been part of the differentiator between them and their competitors.

Zillow Corporate Counsel, Kim Nielsen emailed the Plaintiff’s attorney, Ronald Richards on February 14th, “Unfortunately, if someone is able to provide responses to the verification questions, they are able to claim the home. As I mentioned, we do not manually check each time someone attempts to claim a home. One suggestion would be for the listing agent or company selling the home to go in and claim the home until it is sold. This will at least prevent someone else from being able to fraudulently claim ownership of the home.”

Couldn’t that in itself be seen as a fraudulent claim of ownership if the agent claims the property as their own?

This lawsuit highlights a massive challenge to Zillow’s data, revealing that it can, in fact, be manipulated. With a fake email address and Chinese IP address. Can any user game the system to impact local markets?

For the lawsuit, read here; for the exhibits, read here.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow patent grab advances, now seeking patent on automated rental rates

(REAL ESTATE) Zillow has been applying for utility patents left and right, now adding rental Zestimates to the list.

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We recently reported that Zillow is scooping up patents faster than developers are bulldozing Central Austin single family homes to build two modern half-million dollar homes in their place.  And since then, Zillow’s showing no signs of slowing down.

The online real estate search giant applied for another utility patent for automatically determining market rental rate index for properties .

And what is that you ask?

This application patents Zillow’s ability to determine and index the market rental rate for homes in a geographic area. By accessing the current market rental rate of every home in each area, they can automatically compare them to similar homes to obtain aggregate results.

This functionality isn’t new. Other sites use similar functions to help renters find homes in the areas of their choosing at prices they are willing to pay. However, as we stated, utility patent applications are time intensive and the cost alone raises eyebrows.

Why?

Because if granted these patents, Zillow will be putting themselves at odds with their direct competition and other heavy hitters in the real estate search engine space. No biggie, it’s a free market, but brokers (who butter their bread) also feature automated rental rate tools, many not from Z.

As we mentioned before, this calls into question the unsavory practice of patent trolling. Patent trolls weaponize patents by scooping up patents from other companies instead of coming up with new ideas or technologies. In this case, it means grabbing patents for common technology, such as functionality that allows a user to compile a list of homes with desirable attributes in their prices range.

This kind of technology is already commonly used by several companies and some tell us they believe it shouldn’t need a patent in the first place. However, if Zillow’s applications for the patents go through, they can use them to threaten competing companies with legal action for infringement or failure to pay licensing fees for use of said tech.

Alternatively, this could be a brilliant move by Zillow to protect their intellectual property, their very own special way of automating this data, and that too is a smart business move.

We don’t know how this shakes out, but we’ll definitely be keeping a close eye out for updates.

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