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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.

Real Estate Corporate

Has REX Homes finally ceased operations?

After two rounds of layoffs, a restructure to join MLSs, and swirling rumors regarding leadership, staffers tell us the company has crumbled.

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Empty office REX Homes

Real estate brokerage REX Homes became famous in recent years for spearheading an anti-trust lawsuit against Zillow and the National Association of Realtors, accusing them of being a ‘cartel’ to edge out non-MLS participants. But it appears that as of today, the company has ceased operations.

Numerous staff reached out to us directly to indicate the company’s last day was Tuesday and that a companywide call on Friday outlined the end of REX Homes. While the entity of the brokerage still exists, we are told there are no longer offices, staff, leadership, or agents.

Staff at the Austin, TX and Woodland Hills, CA offices (both in Texas) have confirmed that as of today, the doors are literally closed. It is unclear what REX’s plans are for wrapping up any current contracts that haven’t closed.

The company’s website remains live with no notification of any service interruptions and there have been no changes to the faces that appear on the staffing page.

Many Glassdoor users have begun leaving reviews asserting that operations have ceased. To thicken the mystery, we’ve already seen several recent reviews disappear, but it is unclear if that is Glassdoor or REX’s doing.

Several LinkedIn users formerly employed at REX Homes are putting their #OpenToWork signs up, stating the company has closed – some indicate departments dissolving, others that the entire company has collapsed.

What has been especially interesting with this company is staff’s consistent fears of CEO Jack Ryan, consistently citing a fear of retribution not just professionally, but personally, and several told us we should worry about our own personal safety, having been the only news outlet covering REX’s unraveling.

Also consistent is that everyone we’ve spoken to in the last year has cited an imminent demise of the company as a whole.

In August of 2021, REX Homes laid off 60 staff without severance, and on October 7th, 2021, REX Homes had their second round of layoffs – both times, staff said they were not initially given severance pay, but report to us that after our coverage, they began seeing payment.

Also in October of last year, they shut down their New York and Chicago offices, and announced internally that they would be joining MLSs. They called it a restructure. The joining of any MLS shocked many as the premise of their structure was always that their magical proprietary tech as well as their bypassing of the MLSs to save consumers thousands of dollars.

They earned several rounds of private equity funding and never went public. Several staff told us that going IPO had been a talking point from Ryan, often used to lure them to the company in the first place and accept lower pay with the idea that shares would soon be coming their way.

Between the August and October layoffs, they closed their Series D round of funding, but never disclosed the amount, closing date, or investor. It is therefore unclear how their investors feel about the company’s status, but it is also possible that they’re who initiated the pulling of the plug.

It is also unclear what this means for their ongoing lawsuit against Zillow and NAR and how a non-existent company can pursue a class action lawsuit, but no filings have been made in the past week regarding the case.

As with all REX stories, we have reached out for comment. Because we track all emails, we have always seen them open every press inquiry within seconds, but it is of note that our current request for comment has yet to be viewed

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow seeks a patent to fill out forms electronically – sounds familiar…

(TECHNOLOGY) In yet another broad patent application, Zillow is aiming for ownership of the ability to fill out “transactional documents” electronically.

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zillow

In yet another obscenely broad patent application, Zillow is aiming for ownership of the ability to fill out “transactional documents” electronically.

The official patent application describes “generating electronic transactional documents using a form generating system” and “using a design tool that allows a user to place data entry fields over an image or snapshot of a transactional document.”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because virtually every website that allows customers to e-sign anything already does this. Some concerns also address the fact that services such as DocuSign – a service in which both Google and NAR invested – and even Google Forms might fall under this category.

Should Zillow see this patent approved, it could spell disaster for a huge operational segment of any real estate sale: the actual signing of a contract.

What’s odd about this patent application is the bizarre, gaslighting-lite language it uses to pitch the idea of something that is already used widely on the internet. In the background section, the patent claims that “Most of the time the parties are not in the same physical location when the offers, counteroffers, and acceptances are signed. Fax machines are often used to facilitate the process, as well as emailing scanned documents.”

The background continues with, “Sellers, buyers, and their agents are often not in the same contemporaneous physical location. Therefore, signed documents are often faxed between parties, with original signed copies being retained for the closing.”

Using the implied inconvenience of a physical fax machine as an argument for the efficacy of electronic documents makes sense, albeit in an obvious kind of way; however, using this argument to support the notion that Zillow should be able to claim a patent that gives them domain overall electronic forms in the real estate microcosm seems particularly villainous.

It’s also worth noting that, should this patent be granted any time soon, the likelihood that the world will still be in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic is high. From the patent office’s standpoint, restricting the remote signature options of any real estate firm not affiliated with Zillow during a period of time in which purchasing property is already laborious and dangerous shouldn’t even be an option.

Time will tell whether or not Zillow is successful in achieving its bid for e-signing. Other document-signing services may be able to dispute the patent, but Zillow’s history of scooping up unlikely patents is undoubtedly on their side.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow hit with another lawsuit after iBuying collapse, claiming they misled investors

(REAL ESTATE) Stockholders are suing, alleging that Zillow publicly praised the iBuying program despite knowing it was dying, and they claim to “suffer significant damages.”

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Zillow landing page on laptop

Zillow Group was hit late Thursday with yet another investor lawsuit on the heels of the collapse of their iBuying program (“Zillow Offers”). Hillier v. Zillow Group, Inc. et al in the Western Washington District Court is seeking class action status in this federal securities lawsuit, alleging that Zillow failed to disclose to investors that they did not have the ability to price homes for their Zillow Offers program, and that paired with a known supply and labor shortage, led to an inventory backlog.

The suit claims that under these conditions, Zillow (ZG) knew they would have to end the iBuying program, which would hurt their bottom line, something investors were not made aware of. In fact, this suit notes that company leadership continued to speak positively in public, making “materially false and/or misleading statements” about the program despite their overpaying for numerous homes and selling them at a loss.

In the Notice of Related Cases filed, Braua v. Zillow Group, Inc., et al., and Silverberg v. Zillow Group Inc., et al. were cited, both of which are seeking damages for allegations of misleading investors. The Hillier suit is specifically seeking to certify a class of Zillow stock buyers who made purchases from Aug. 7, 2020, and Nov. 2, 2021.

The new lawsuit outlines the following (our words, not theirs):

  • Zillow launched the home buying program in 2018 to rapidly flip properties.
  • By close of 2019, they were in 22 markets, and the program accounted for half of their annual revenue ($1.4B).
  • On August 05, 2021, the company released Q2 earnings, citing $772M from the iBuying program, roughly 60% of their annual revenue. In the release, Defendant Rich Barton said that their “iBuying business, Zillow Offers, continues to accelerate as we offer more customers a fast, fair, flexible and convenient way to move” and “is proving attractive to sellers even in this sizzling-hot seller’s market.”
  • In October, RBC Capital Markets began cooling on Zillow, lowering their price target for the stock, warning that Zillow Offers would likely miss quarterly expectations, dragging ZG down from $91.40 on October 01 to $85.68 on October 04.
  • Shortly thereafter, in October 2021, Zillow announced they would be halting the program through year’s end, and stocks continued to slip.
  • In November, the company released their Q3 financials and simultaneously declared an end to the program and a 25% workforce cut.

It appears that the crux of the Hillier case is that leadership continued to praise the program even as it declined, right up until the Q3 earnings statements went public and it could no longer sustain the program.

“As a result of defendants’ wrongful acts and omissions, and the resulting declines in the market value of the company’s securities, plaintiff and other members of the class have suffered significant damages,” the suit concludes.

As recently as this week, InvestorPlace said, “it’s going to be a while before ZG stock could make a comeback,” noting that Zillow’s house is not in order.

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