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Zillow Copyright Suit Charges Zillow Uses Photos Of Sold Properties

July 21st, 2015

ZillowSuitMany readers have pointed out that Zillow has been sued by VHT claiming that the Zillow.com/digs home improvement site is violating copyrights on hundreds of real estate photos. John Cook at GeekWire.com has an article the summarizes the VHT’s suit against Zillow.

The suit alleges that:

Zillow uses photographs from homes that are not for sale and makes no effort whatsoever to remove those images once properties are sold; it induces users to post images to the Digs Site; it uses those images to induce advertisers to fill Zillow’s coffers with advertising revenue; and it tags and groups the photographs and pastes advertisements directly on top of VHT’s images. Zillow cannot hide behind safe harbors and blame others for its own brazen theft.

I’m frankly glad to see that someone is going after Zillow for not deleting sold listing photos. I personally have noticed that Zillow has still retained my photos for our rental listing that sold two and a half years ago. In neighborhoods I’m familiar with, I see this happening all over. Any reasonable expectations would require them to delete all photos from sold listing. They clearly don’t do that. As the GeekWire.com article points out, Zillow’s point of view is that “Zillow has abided by the terms of the licenses agreed to by the parties who provided these photos.” In other words, Zillow thinks that the licensing provided by MLSs is such they can do anything they want with photos of sold listings for as long as they want. They get by with this because 90% of listing photos are done by Realtors with smartphones and they don’t care what happens to the photos after the sale.

This clearly needs to be settled ASAP! Thanks to VHT for taking this cause on!

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8 Responses to “Zillow Copyright Suit Charges Zillow Uses Photos Of Sold Properties”

  • I would like to emphasize that it is VHT, not the photographers who produce images for it, that owns the copyright to those images. This seems to be the case with most, if not all, of the major “virtual tour” providers; who, by the way, do not employ photographers, but rather work with them as independent contractors who must provide their own equipment, transportation, insurance, etc..

    It seems that many real estate photographers are under the impression that their photos have no value beyond marketing the listings. However, this lawsuit belies that belief. Why would Zillow want to use the images on its Digs website and why would VHT bother to sue if the images had no monetary value beyond their initial use? And it is not only Zillow that wants to make secondary commercial use of real estate images.

  • Recentl I noticed a house I once owned being marketed on Zillow’s “make me move” with some amazing pictures I’d taken during the span of 7 years residence (stunning waterfront). I fired off notice to the sellers and Zillow to remove the pics… And was completely ignored… It’s sort of a helpless feeling getting robbed by a software behemoth, I hope they go down in flames some day 🙂

  • Rather than removing pictures when a property is sold, the photos should be taken down when the home is not longer listed for whatever reason. Does Zillow know when a listing is taken down or do they have to make comparisons with the data feeds and what they currently have online? That could impact how quickly they could delete the photos. It DOES benefit me to find the last set of listing images for a property so I can see an entire home that I’ve been hired to photograph. For Zillow to use images that have been syndicated to them in others services is way over the line. We’ll have to see if this case goes to court. Most Copyright cases are settled before they get to a courtroom.

    @David, I agree. I’ve seen several RE photographers on this site and others write about how their secondary licensing brings in a handy 5 figures a year. I alway have my eyes open for those opportunities and sometime this year I hope to get a RE stock photo site put together with the best photos I corral from my work.

    @Dave, The easiest thing for Zillow to do is to ignore you. Experience has likely taught them that is very unlikely that you would ever follow up and if you did, you would only do so once. The chances that you would ever have an attorney contact them or file a lawsuit is so microscopically small that the once or twice a year that that sort of thing happens they can just offer a very modest settlement to make it go away. Their outcome: thousands of images for $.01 – $.10 each amortized over the course of a year. You also have to factor in how infrequent it is that somebody finds an infringement of their work

  • ” I fired off notice to the sellers and Zillow to remove the pics…”

    And, you didn’t take the next step?
    Send their internet provider (GoDaddy.com) a DMCA takedown email. The ISP is required to remove the offending images and videos until the site owner proves their copyright. Otherwise the ISP is equally responsible for copyright violation as the site owner

  • It seems that Zillow and Trulia are also shutting down most virtual tours being syndicated from outside the MLS. Many of the tour companies offer direct syndication to home search sites in addition to the local MLS syndication. While the MLS syndicated tours would apparently have the ability to access the “status” field in order to make tours inactive, the tours that are syndicated directly by providers are more problematic as agents rarely update the status on tours once sold, expired or withdrawn. While the direct syndication is a nice service to offer agents (most of whom never post tours to their MLS so that they can be syndicated) I have been wondering how long it would take before the explosion of inactive tours playing all over the internet would force home search companies to push for more accurate syndication. It always starts with a lawsuit!

  • In my opinion, perhaps an answer to the problem of what happens after the listing comes down – or even when the listing is up – since a lot of problems arise from the listing being up is as follows:
    Create a two tier pricing system. Let’s say you charge $149 for a tour with 25 images. Why not have an option for the agent to pay an extra $100-$200 for the right to do with the images whatever the agent wants, including if a syndication picks up the images. The likelihood of any one image being picked up is minimal – think about how many houses are listed with photos and multiply that times 25 images per hour and it is mindboggling that your one image will be the one that is the problem. If they take the $149 -and the image is stolen, reproduced or used in anyway outside your license/copyright or agreement with the agent, the agent will be the one responsible for reimbursing the photographer up to $1000.00. If they pay the extra $100/$200 then the problem goes away. Sort of like an insurance policy. Think of the thousands of images you take for the agent over the course of a year and it could bring you in some extra income. Of course, this would require the best practice of having a release signed for each property sold – even if it is an email acknowldegement of the responsibliities of license/ownership/copyright etc. By the way – in the US if you have such a great image (usually of a magnificent home – take the time to actually do on-line copyrighting with the government before posting it to the internet or handing it over to the agent – even if they pay the extra $$$). If shows a best practice of valuing your images and your photography and if you do this on a regular basis, your chances in court could be better.
    That being said – good luck getting the agent to agree to or pay you the extra $$$. We will start doing this and report back to the group in 3 months the success of this new “program”.

  • @Suzanne F., My local REA/MLS requires agents to post listings within 48 hours of signing the listing contract subject to owner’s instructions. The MLS and not the agent has syndication agreements to provide the listings to the wider world so the agent doesn’t have control. This makes charging a larger licensing fee for permission to syndicate problematic. Trying to get an agent to sign an indemnification agreement making them liable for infringements exacerbated by syndication is going to scare them away and on to another photographer.

    If the release you mention is a “property release”, except for some unique situations there is no need to get one. You can if you like, but nobody I’ve seen that participates in RE photo forums has heard of any case involving one. If you are photographing an iconic building that is tied to a specific company such as the Transamerica building in San Francisco, you will want to have one.

    Registering your images with the Copyright office is a good idea, but do it for all of your images. There’s no telling what might be infringed upon. Registration for published images can be done every 3 months or slightly sooner to beat the deadline. If you have photos of something newsworthy and time sensitive and believe that they may be infringed upon immediately, you may want to register those before letting anybody else see them. I have had that situation. Registration is $55 per registration and that can include thousands of pictures. Sorting out the best images to register just isn’t worth the time.

    The issue is with the practice of Zillow’s in taking images provided for one purpose and reusing them in a different commercial activity without permission and compensation. I’m not sure they can argue that they have permission no matter what agreements they have since the agreements would be so far removed from the copyright holder and the original intent (to market a house for sale). There’s a lot of businesses models these days that seem to be built on stealing media and circumventing regulations. Pinterest, Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, news article aggregators, scientific publication repositories and on and on. The problem is that it can cost a significant amount of money to pursue a Copyright case and the bigger the foe, the more money it takes. It’s possible that an independent photographer could bring a case against Zillow and win, but they have a staff of attorneys to drag that sort of complaint out and run the costs past what the photographer can afford or risk. If VHT goes to court with their complaint and wins, there will be a precedent and the next case will be easier to win. This is another reason companies will settle out of court. If they lose in court, they might be flooded with similar suits.

    I’d love to be licensing stock photos to Zillow and I could charge a very reasonable fee. I have loads of photos on my hard drives that I’d very much like to be earning me a bit of money every year. My costs would mostly be in the time it takes to process the license agreement and invoice.

  • As a real estate photographer http://www.homezoneimages.com, photographs are protected by copyright immediately at the time of creation under the Federal Copyright Act of 1976. There is no need to get an individual copyright on every photo, the photographer is already protected. Additionally, the photographer owns the copyright of every photo taken unless released in writing.

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