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Montana Regional MLS Wants Photographers to Remove All Previous Watermarks on Photos!

Published: 30/10/2018
By: larry

Conrad in Big Sky Country says:

Our MRMLS (Montana Regional MLS) organization has changed its rules on watermarking photos and is requiring real estate photographers to remove watermarks off all the pictures on active listings by Nov 18th, 2018. Any information on this situation happening? I can’t imagine going back and delivering photos to hundreds of clients without watermarks. This is crazy!

Yes, you are right that sounds like an unreasonable request. I don't think they understand the implications of what they are asking. Here are my observations on this issue:

  1. First of all, this is an issue the MRMLS should take up with the members of the MRMLS (the local Realtors), not photographers like yourself who are likely not even members of the MRMLS. MLS rules are for MLS members. They can fine their members but I doubt they can legally fine photographers.
  2. I suggest that someone like yourself get together with a top Realtor or company broker who can speak for many MRMLS members in the area and have a discussion with the CEO of the MRMLS and explain how impractical this proposal is for high-volume photographers in the area like yourself.

If they simply made the rule, "no watermarking of photos from now on" within 6 months or a year most photos with existing watermarks would disappear on their own because of expired listings.

Has anyone else encountered this craziness?

16 comments on “Montana Regional MLS Wants Photographers to Remove All Previous Watermarks on Photos!”

  1. Watermarking an image for Real Estate? Gosh, I have never heard of that. Usually, our MLS watermarks them when they are posted. While most MLS boards are pretty savvy with regards to the Real Estate world, most are clueless with regards to photographers and copyright laws. Out of all the area states I serve, only one to my knowledge even knows what the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is and how it impacts them. You would have thought they would have bumped up the knowledge base with the Zillow suit but I digress.

    Getting back to your issue, they probably have no idea what it takes to export out those images and deliver them for the many clients you might have. If you really need to redeliver the images - I think you need to push back on your clients, if you have a bunch I bet you might even know someone who sits on the board. If you do, I would suggest you talk to them. When dealing with the three MLS boards I serve, I try to use moments like this as relationship building tool. They might not have thought it through.

    While Larry is absolutely right, they can't make you do anything or fine you but as I said moments like these can also be real opportunities.

    Good Luck!

  2. The MLS is requiring real estate photographers? They cannot require photographers to do anything unless they have a written agreement with photographers that allows them to do that. What I suspect Conrad means is that the MLS is requiring its members to replace the watermarked images with non-watermarked ones. In such a situation, if I were in that market had any more than a few requests to resend non-watermarked photos, I would charge something for my time to do this, or I would give my clients written permission to remove the watermarks themselves if they preferred not pay for me to resend photos. If the watermarks include a photographer's copyright notice, written permission is required for someone other than the copyright holder to remove a copyright notice. Removing a copyright notice without permission is a criminal offense subject to a substantial fine.

  3. I still don't have any idea why having a Copyright watermark on an image impacts the MLS at all.

    It would be easy in my workflow to re-issue photos without a watermark since I use Lightroom when I do add them. All of the images that I send for a job have 4 stars and it's quick to access them given the property address.

  4. Similar to what Ken stated, with Lightroom (or others like Capture One), easy enough to re-sort the starred group and export without copyright. Plus, it is not EVERY shoot as hopefully they have at least gone pending if not sold. While Realtors may need to clarify if limited to active listings and where pending stands, you should have a diminishing number each month. Just need to ask the Realtor which ones are still active. The other thing to clarify is it 1) new, or 2) newly enforced of existing, if they really specified "copyright" or is it a more general exclusion such as this - " Photos, images or virtual tours may not contain company or agent logos, agent photos, commissions, bonuses, contact information for the agent or office, text, or graphics of any kind (with the exception of the MFRMLS watermark) in the virtual tour or photo sections." Virtual tour is a totally different animal as they do allow the vendor contact information as an exception.

    Personally, can't imagine putting a watermark on the photo given the uproar from Realtors that existed when the local MLS changed the rules and started putting their watermark on all photos uploaded. Of course it came from an environment as noted above prohibiting text and graphics, so there were no watermarks. That has died down now and the policy change had the desired effect. It was in direct response to Realtors swiping other Realtors photos for the same property, and the watermark policy becomes a marker for MLS to know where the photos originated when adjudicating a complaint requiring arbitration and applying fines.

  5. Until we begin to confront these MLS's we will continue to lose ownership of our photos. Why real estate photographers are not more incited by this, I just don't understand. Our local MLS puts their watermark on the photos and I have tried to figure out if this is actually in violation of copyright law since they don't use the copyright symbol. Hopefully someone here will let me know if this is in violation. @David Eichler and @Bruce Peter Morin are correct MLS can not force photographers to do this. Yes, most of use have LR or Capture One and this is not that big of an issue but it is still our time and time is money.
    I personally wonder is the federal law allows us to put a watermark on our photos which would knockout anything the MLS really wants to do.

  6. This simply illustrates the level of intelligence we’re dealing with. MLS’s should set guidelines and then demand that all photographs have a watermark. That would increase the level of professionalism by promoting professional photography. Yes, I know anyone can watermark a picture, but having every image watermarked will allow the consumer to see the difference and make an informed decision when selecting an agent to represent them. All of my images are watermarked and every agent I work for has told me they’ve gotten listings because potential clients saw the difference in listings online.

    MLS’s that have a mission statement, or at least know what that is, typically say that they ‘protect the consumer’. If they truly want to do that, they need to demand professionalism within their ranks, and encouraging agents to use professional photography would be a great first step. Agents using smartphones are not doing their clients justice. Too many clients are not aware of the difference it can make and MLS’s should ‘protect’ them. Agents that don’t use professional photography are typically the same agents that don’t know about pre-approvals, condo docs, digital communications, contracts, etc. They are not serving clients properly and degrade the profession. It IS the responsibility of the local MLS to bring them up to speed. Why in the world they would focus their resources on discouraging professionalism is beyond me.

  7. My watermark is faint, but there.
    I can't tell you how much work I pick up because of it, and I refuse to remove it.

    Would you ask Picasso to skip signing his work?

  8. "Our local MLS puts their watermark on the photos and I have tried to figure out if this is actually in violation of copyright law since they don’t use the copyright symbol." I am not an attorney, but I believe that, if your terms state that the photos may not be modified in that way, or any way at all, then that might be an infringement of your intellectual property rights.

    Personally, I would prefer that MLSs not put their watermark on the images, but I am not going to make a federal case out of it, as long as it does not include their copyright notice.

  9. "Would you ask Picasso to skip signing his work?" This is commercial, not fine, art. While it has been customary to give credits for editorial usage with some publications, credit for commercial usage is a rare exception, though some content creators have required copyright notices for marketing usage for things like social media. MLS listing compilations are online directories, and there has never been a custom of including creditors or copyright notices for the individual content of the compilations, only for the compilations as a whole.

  10. @Teri, Unless you give an MLS a signed transfer of Copyright, you don't lose ownership of your images. What can happen is that agents/brokers are stipulating to licensing terms that they are not entitled to transfer to an MLS. That winds up throwing your customer under the bus if you peruse a claim for infringement against the MLS or who they transfer the images to without your permission.

  11. Ken, once again, I have to suggest that you need to be careful about giving advice on copyright matters.

    If they simply display the information their members submit to the MLS compilation and they comply with DMCA requirements for safe harbor protection, I believe that MLSs are protected from copyright infringement claims relating to that listing content. I think what you are trying to say is that the terms of some MLSs may go beyond just what is needed to display the submitted content unaltered, and that this where one might run into problems. Some, perhaps many, MLSs have perfectly reasonable terms of usage for the submitted listing content that correspond with the types of usage licenses that photographers often use.

  12. @David, Teri made the comment "Until we begin to confront these MLS’s we will continue to lose ownership of our photos.". That's not correct as Copyright must be transferred in writing. With some MLS's trying to trap their members into assigning Copyright on everything they submit, a photographer's work could be submitted by an agent that does not have permission to transfer the Copyright. That's the point I was trying to get across.

    The license I give allows all uses of the images to market the property shown (community photos are a bit different). If the MLS is going to crop or change the resolution, add a watermark, etc, I'm not too bothered with that. They need to do that so the images display correctly. The overreach bothers me a lot. The only reason that an MLS or any RE listing site would need ownership of a Copyright is so they can monetize the images. That wouldn't bother me as much if I was getting $500/image initially for boring middle class homes and more for nicely staged luxury homes. Some of the overreach might also be to CYA in light of some very large suits being brought, but that's lawyers that don't know how much is enough to protect their clients and instead go way overboard with armor plating and bubblewrap.

    As a not-attorney, my legal advice is highly suspect but, I can give it more freely than a lawyer since if I'm wrong I can't be called on the mat by the state Bar association. I do study Copyright issues a lot as they apply to photographers, movie makers and musicians as I work in all of those fields. I also know a few attorneys that have IP practices and pick their brains when I get the chance and it's not part of a billable hour. Though the dinner and drinks might be close to the same cost.

    It's best to talk with a real attorney when one finds an infringement instead of asking in a photographer's forum. It's still possible to learn what sorts of myths are out there in comments.

  13. @Larry, I see what they are doing with wanting watermarked images to be replaced. If they say that no new postings can be watermarked, every time they see one, they'd have to also check to see when it was posted to find out if they are in violation or not. If the regulation were to go into effect 4 months down the road, yes, most listings would have dropped off and the few remaining would be easier to change out. That they are giving agents 3 weeks going into the slow season, there will be a bunch of scrambling on the part of very busy photographers to resend unwatermarked images especially if their workflow isn't very conducive to doing that. That would be a good thing to bring up with the CEO/President of the MRMLS given that their mind is made up to ban the practice.

  14. David Eichler: While you might look at your work as simply "commercial", I don't.
    I take pride in what I do and spend much more time doing it than the vast majority of RE photographers out there (I only take one shoot per day)

  15. Funny thing is, being that I shoot close to 600 listing a year in Montana, I have received no such notice. Maybe it's being delivered by wagon train. Or maybe, since I've never watermarked my images for MLS, they had no reason to inform me. But, they also don't allow the signs of Realtors to show in the yard, so maybe it's not meant to be a personal affront. 🙂

  16. Very silly policy if you ask me. First of all...even if you go into LR and re-export versions with no watermark and re-deliver...there is no guarantee that the agent would quickly re-upload the new jpgs. Photogs have no direct acces to individual agent’s MLS uploads so they can’t “make sure” something is done. Redelivering is just a suggestion to the listing agent at best. is a photog supposed to know which homes are active and which are not? Some have sold after all.

    The MLS has no direct control over any of us. They can’t fine us. They can fine our agent customers though. And not being proactive about helping your customer could be seen by some agents as throwing them under the bus.

    Best suggestion is to send a broadcast email stating that their MLS wants new photos and that whatever active listings they have...send a list of them and you will send new versions.

    That is the best anyone can do really.

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