Blockbuster $8M+ Verdict Against Zillow for Copyright Infringement of Real Estate Photos

February 14th, 2017

This article by Joel Rothman reposted from sriplaw.com.

VHT, the real estate photo giant, filed suit for copyright infringement against Zillow Group in July 2015 alleging that Zillow had been stealing tens of thousands of VHT’s photos and illegally using them for its own profit and gain on the Zillow Digs website.

At the end of the two week trial the Seattle jury found that Zillow failed to prove it could use VHT’s photos either under license or fair use and that Zillow therefore infringed the copyrights in 28,125 of VHT’s real estate photos.

The jury also awarded VHT $79,875 in actual damages, for a total award of $8.3 million for copyright infringement.

Zillow launched the “Digs” section of its website on February 5, 2013, calling it “a compilation of photos taken from the company’s vast images database.” Zillow touted to investors a “terrific uptake in engagement and user generated content, with more than 76,000 photos added by our community of users, and 80,000 content boards created.”

Zillow Digs was flagged by real estate photographers early on as a haven for infringement. Many real estate photographers instantly recognized photos on Digs as ones they had licensed for use only in connection with the sale of a specific real estate listing.

Zillow believed it was licensed to use the images, or that it was entitled to DMCA safe harbor. Neither defense was successful at the trial.

What’s next? Zillow says it plans to appeal. However, the battle will be uphill for Zillow. We congratulate VHT for an important, hard fought win.

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15 Responses to “Blockbuster $8M+ Verdict Against Zillow for Copyright Infringement of Real Estate Photos”

  • No matter what Zillow claims, they show themselves either totally inept and clueless about copyright or in complete defiance of copyright law. Either way they have damaged their brand.

  • I am so happy to see Zillow finally take a big loss in court. Hopefully their blatant disregard for copyright laws puts an end to their excessive infringement. Now, lets see if this sparks a change in the way they do business.

  • Zillow has been running a side business of a stock photo agency for a long time selling our images. PIXSY, an online software platform that identifies unlicensed image use on the Internet, uncovered one of my images being used at Bob Vila’s Home Improvement site. Pixsy followed through on my behlf by sending Bob an invoice for a new license to use my image. Kudos to Bob V. – he paid it! Said, they bought it from Zillow originally!

  • Very few photographers register their images and a very small percentage of those will pursue infringers so the risk to infringers is nearly non-existant. It’s frustrating to see on the RE forums advice from people to not go after people that steal their images.

    I also work as a freelance photojournalist and services that purport to find unlicensed images for a photographer doesn’t work very well for me. Reuters doesn’t send me a list of everybody that has licensed my images through them and I have to manually go through and look for “Reuters/Kenneth Brown”. Credits are mandatory with Reuters which makes it easier to spot infringing copies. A service will wind up sending me too many alerts to make it worth my time. It’s very easier to search images on Google and some finding some unauthorized use is just serendipitous, so it’s important to go after the infringements as you find them since there may be many more that you may never see.

  • I too am very happy to see this and hope this opens some sort of deluge for cases like this to be decided on behalf of photographers. The sad part is they’ll appeal of course, and we know who has all the money for the best defense. But this verdict is certainly a positive one and I feel things are going to get better in the coming years.

  • As someone relatively new to the copyright of images, is there an reputed online registry that we can register our photos to?

  • This is good on several fronts. Sure, it’s good for us as photographers, but it’s also good for the professional agents that pay for the right to use our pictures. The best part is, by spreading the word it will educate the public about copyright and the difference between owning and licensing. Far too many people think that because it’s on the web, it’s automatically in the public domain.

  • Yaaaasss! As an agent I HATE ZILLOW! I know this doesn’t contribute much to this thread but it feels good! LOL

  • So to take this further – I was just told by an agent I shoot for that they just paid IDX for the right to scrub their files and use content on a new web marketing program. I suspect this is a link to the current listing, so that would not be an infringement, correct?

  • I deliver over 10,000 photos a year. Most of those could and do end up on Zillow. I don’t really have time to register all those photos. I really can’t even put them in a folder for Pixsy to scan after the fact. I wonder how I could get a cut of the Zillow settlement, without spending a 100 hours sorting it out?

  • Dan Achatz: The case against Zillow was filed by VHT. It was not filed as a class action. Unfortunately, there is no way you can get a “cut” of the settlement. Please feel free to contact me directly to discuss the remainder of your post.

  • @Peggy – Yes, IDX is a feed of all the active listings on a given area’s MLS that agents can buy so they can people can see all of the local homes for sale on the agent’s personal site. Works much like real estate office websites. IDX is all legal.

  • @Larry and @Peggy, it is much more complicated than that. IDX feeds have licensing agreements. It depends upon what the agreement says. What Peggy is complaining about may or may not be legal depending on the agreement and what the photos from the IDX feed are being used for.

    In the case of Zillow, they have agreements with MLS’s all over the country and the agreements vary from one MLS to the other. Zillow tried to defend its case by saying that it had licensing agreements from MLS’s to do what it did on Zillow Digs but that defense was rejected.

  • @Rich, http://www.copyright.gov (not .com). There are tutorials on Kelby One from Ed Greenberg and Jack Rezniki that will walk you through the whole process from start to finish. It’s easy to register your images and you don’t have to do them individually. There are some links on the Copyright.gov site that may answer many of the questions you come up with.

    @Dan, if your images are not registered, you don’t have a very good chance of getting anything from an infringement. Once you are registered with the Copyright office and ok’d to bulk submit published images (unpublished images are not a problem to register in bulk), you have 90 days from first publication to register for full protection. I call my publication date as the date when I provide the link to the agent. That’s usually within a day or two of when they actually post them. Any image viewable by the public is “published”. An image in a private password protected gallery is not published. That’s a rule of thumb, not a legal pronouncement.

  • Even if you are doing a large volume of photos and find it impractical to register everything, I would strongly advise that you register the photos you shoot of new construction, recent remodels, any homes with especially nice staging or decorating, or ones of historical interest, or anything that could potentially go in your portfolio, since these are the ones that are most likely to be of interest to other parties. There is decent money to be made selling reuse rights to real estate photos in some cases, including by identifying copyright infringements and insisting upon payment for usage or removal of the photos.

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