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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

REX anti-trust lawsuit accuses Zillow, NAR of being in a ‘cartel’

(REAL ESTATE) Real Estate Exchange, Inc. (REX) is suing Zillow and NAR, alleging a cartel wherein non-MLS members like themselves are edged out of the marketplace.

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rex homes

Real Estate Exchange, Inc. (REX) has today filed an federal anti-trust lawsuit against Zillow and the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

REX accuses NAR of “non-negotiable” compensation structures baked into the MLS, an assertion that has been proven otherwise in the past.

They go on to accuse Zillow of making changes recently to their site that makes “non-MLS listings accessible only via a recessed, obscured, and deceptive tab,” leading to REX’s listings (on Zillow) losing traffic, “severely impacting REX’s reputation, its ability to execute its innovative and disruptive business model, and driving consumers away from REX and back into the MLS regime, ensuring higher commissions that benefit NAR’s members” which they say ultimately disadvantages consumers.

REX claims that Zillow (and other real estate aggregators) have helped them “to maneuver around the NAR/MLS cartel’s high commission structures” by aiding them “to reach a large audience of potentially interested buyers.”

But then Zillow went and became an ibuyer, shifting their focus from search to owning inventory, eventually joining NAR in 2020.

REX accuses Zillow of hiding non-MLS listings like theirs through their redesign. All of their homes are listed by a licensed real estate agent, but they are not NAR members and proclaim they never will be.

The crux of REX’s argument is that as a newly minted member of NAR, Zillow must follow rules set by NAR (which is done by members in committees, not the executives), and so they have joined forces to conceal non-MLS listings on Zillow’s site, thus entering into an anticompetitive posture together.

“Zillow began like so many other platforms: it served a great value to American consumers. Unfortunately, we see Zillow as backtracking on their original mission to serve consumers, instead focusing on their own profits,” said REX CEO Jack Ryan in a press release today.

In the last week of February, REX presented this case to 35 states attorneys general, leading up to their federal filing (their presentation can be found here).

The full lawsuit can be found here.

In a statement to The American Genius, Mantill Williams, NAR VP of Communications states, “This lawsuit has no legal basis, and we intend to vigorously contest it. This is an example of a brokerage trying to take benefits of the MLS system without contributing to it. It has been long recognized that the MLS system provides considerable pro-consumer, pro-competition value. REX’s lawsuit seeks to undermine that consumer value—simply for REX’s own benefit.”

Williams continues, “The MLS system levels the playing field for small businesses and allows innovation to flourish, all to the benefit of buyers and sellers. The advanced MLS technology gives publishers access to all the same information, allowing buyers to see as many properties for sale in one place as possible, while simultaneously ensuring sellers have access to the largest pool of buyers. Because of MLSs, we’re at a point in the market where we’re seeing unprecedented benefits to consumers and competition among brokers, especially when it comes to service and commission options.”

A Zillow spokesperson tells us, “We are aware of the lawsuit and believe the claims are without merit and intend to vigorously defend ourselves against it. Zillow is committed to giving consumers the most up-to-date housing information on the most amount of listings possible on a single platform. As part of our switch to MLS Internet Data Exchange (IDX) feeds and becoming formal MLS participants earlier this year, we were required to make changes to the way some listings appear on the site in order to be compliant with MLS rules. As a result, when using one of our platforms to search for homes, buyers may see two options to view their search results – “Agent listings”, and “Other listings” – which include For Sale by Owner listings or Coming Soon listings not on the MLS or, for that matter, on most other real estate sites.”

They conclude, “As part of our efforts to empower consumers, we have been actively working to update the industry rules, including those around ‘co-mingling,’ to allow a seamless search experience so we can continue to display all types of listings on our platform.”

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Real Estate Corporate

The tables have turned: Zillow being sued for violating antitrust law

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) A Vermont real estate company is bringing a lawsuit against Zillow for violating antitrust laws. Will it be enough to slow the real estate giant?

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Pen laying on a document covering antitrust law.

In a shocking upset, a Vermont real estate website is suing Zillow for violating antitrust law. The website, called Picket Fence, alleges that Zillow’s operation in Vermont led to millions in lost revenue, both past and projected.

According to court documents supplied by the state of Vermont, Picket Fence—a for-sale-by-owner business that originated and is located in Vermont—was one of the first significant FSBO businesses in the state. Picket Fence purportedly endeavored to use their services in order to connect private sellers with clients, thus negating the need for an agent or traditional real estate service.

Zillow, by contrast, is a “Foreign Profit Corporation” in Vermont. Since Zillow is located predominantly in Seattle, Washington, their presence in the state of Vermont falls under a different classification than that of Picket Fence.

The court document alleges that Zillow, by providing aggressive competition in a state other than that of its origin, deprived Picket Fence of due revenue. It also alleges that Zillow violated “state and federal consumer and antitrust laws” in addition to a handful of Vermont laws. The document refers to “unfair and deceptive acts” on behalf of Zillow, insinuating that Zillow’s operation in Vermont was damaging to FSBO services like Picket Fence.

While much of Zillow’s purported damage to Picket Fence is projected based on profit estimations from 2017, the fact remains that Zillow used the tactics they have used across the country to monopolize real estate business in Vermont. Picket Fence estimates that this will result in a net loss of over $142 million by 2030, so their case prioritizes monetary recompense.

On a separate note in the document, Picket Fence shows that Zillow’s operation and interference in Vermont prevented local FSBO and other real estate endeavors from taking hold despite the best efforts of Picket Fence. The complaint addresses this issue as another nail in the antitrust violation coffin.

Picket Fence continues to suggest that Zillow’s actions were and are illegal, damaging, and in violation of significant antitrust law. This isn’t surprising given Zillow’s long history of shady activity from patent-grabbing to lengthy court cases designed to crush competitors; it is these exact behaviors that Picket Fence is hoping to address in their complaint.

Zillow, for their part, will have to answer for a lot over the course of the last 12 months. This Vermont case is sure to be one of the first of many attempts to bring the real estate giant to its wobbly, monopoly-seeking knees—and, with any luck, it will be the first successful one.

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Real Estate Corporate

Watch out: Zillow’s terms of service have some sinister notes

(REAL ESTATE CORPORATE) Zillow’s updated terms of service allow them to make a lot of decisions with your data—none of which need your approval.

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Computer searching online open to terms of service page.

Zillow has a bit of a shady record. Between their excessive patent-hoarding and the aggressive nature with which they tend to squash competing services, you wouldn’t be remiss in treating them with caution—especially now that the real estate service is revamping their terms of service with some seemingly sinister changes in mind.

The actual terms of service prove for a lengthy—but recommended—read. However, WAV Group, a real estate consulting service, highlighted a few specific stipulations in the terms of service. If you’re here for the short version, it’s this: Have a lawyer look over the updated terms before agreeing to them if you’re a Zillow user. Otherwise, keep reading for a deep-dive on some of the more concerning aspects of these changes.

Data, regardless of the form in which it appears, should be considered an asset; if you aren’t worried about how Zillow (or other companies in their wake) will use the terms of service to legitimize sending away your information at a moment’s notice, you absolutely should be. To wit, WAV Group also recommends having a lawyer look over Zillow’s privacy policy which, while not on par with the terms of service, also underwent a bit of a redesign.

In a nutshell, Zillow’s updates allow them to use and distribute your data—including information associated with your listings—at their discretion. That sounds pretty standard, but Zillow makes it clear that they aren’t just using your data: They own it. What that means is you can’t repurpose or reuse that data again without specific parameters in place if you want to avoid breaking Zillow’s terms of service.

Zillow is also kind enough to alert you that they will take no responsibility for anything negative that happens as a result of your data use on their behalf, a process which can include unauthorized credit checks, the appropriation and use of your data by third-party services, and all of the downsides that accompany these actions.

So, for example, if Zillow passes along your data to a third-party service that has shaky web security, you can’t hold Zillow accountable for the hand-off regardless of negative repercussions on your end.

Now, you wouldn’t be wrong to want to delete your listing and clear out of Zillow after all of this, but you would be wrong in thinking it’s that simple. According to the new terms of service, you may delete your account, listing, and preferences; you just can’t delete any listing data from Zillow since, upon accepting those terms, your data is their data.

Finally—and, as WAV Group mentions, extremely importantly—Zillow’s new terms of service allow them to claim referral fees on your behalf without accepting any responsibility for potential harm to you, your property, your company, or—you guessed it—your data. This basically means that Zillow can act as a referring agency on your behalf without asking for your consent, which runs the risk of everything from raising your bottom line to risking your privacy.

It’s undeniable that Zillow has a motive here: Recuse themselves of responsibility for reckless and irresponsible behavior. Don’t trust the terms of service like you most likely do with other products here—make sure you have a lawyer (or at least a particularly shrewd second pair of eyes) to look over these terms before you sign any kind of deal with this real estate devil.

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