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Should You Be Concerned When Realtors Watermark Their Listing Photos?

Published: 14/02/2017

Ryan in Texas asks:

Should I be concerned about listing services that allow a Realtor to watermark their listing photos? The watermarking of photos appears to advertise the realtor's services and prevent the photos' subsequent appropriation by another realtor or broker should the listing agent lose the listing, but it seems like a slippery slope. Can it be construed that the realtor is claiming these photos as their own? I'm aware that in many licensing agreements (including my own), photographers are allowing their clients to use the photos to advertise their listing, and to a more limited degree, their own businesses in the form of marketing their sold listings to gain more business from potential sellers. I'd be interested to hear what you and other real estate photography business owners have to say about it and whether or not you've encountered or dealt with it before.

I would clarify what your client's intent is by watermarking your photos. If their intent is just promoting their brand then OK. Unfortunately, it's more likely they think they own the photo. The vast majority of real estate agents don't understand photo licensing. It's your job to teach them! The watermarks don't make that much difference, it's what they do with the photos that is important.
If it is your intention to retain the copyright and perhaps resell the photos, it's important to:
  1. Use a license agreement with your clients that clearly states who owns the copyright to the photos and specifically what use your clients are authorized to make of the photos.
  2. Make sure that your clients understand what the agreement means.
Real estate agents typically have little or no understanding of standard photo licensing conventions and tend to do anything they want with the photos.
Larry Lohrman

10 comments on “Should You Be Concerned When Realtors Watermark Their Listing Photos?”

  1. Michael...It may be Illinois law but it would be redundant to MLS/IDX rules that universally prohibit branding with it's own set of fines and punishments. As a side issue, those rules may need to be reviewed and updated particularly in the area of video which were written during the time of slideshow tours with blanket exclusions of all people - including homeowners - and YouTube hosting on "Joe Realtors" channel. Those capabilities just didn't exist when the rules were written. That said, where are the watermarks showing up - MLS/IDX or their commercial branded site (or more likely both as why maintain two sets of photos). Locally, out MLS has placed their watermark on all photos submitted for origin tracking and complaint resolution. It has really cut down on Realtors snagging other Realtors photos for their use.

  2. Michael,
    I don't know what part of Illinois you are in but in Northern Illinois Berkshire Hathaway always puts their logo watermark on all their listings. I don't know if they have staff photographers or what but if I shot for them here in the Chicago area I would take offense at their logo on my images.

  3. I was who asked this question, and generally the photos in question are anything that are outside of the MLS. Like, Single Entry Listing takes the info from the MLS. To do this, you actually log into the SEL system first, then MLS through a proxy so that the SEL system can record the keystrokes. Then you had to pick six photos to watermark, but the photos in MLS remained unchanged; you only could watermark the photos in the SEL system, and they would be distributed via a hub to all the sites like Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, et al, instead of going straight to from the MLS. SEL was kind of a go-between, a middleman so to speak. So when buyers would see your listing on those sites, they'd be more likely to call you as the realtor than whatever realtor was randomly listed on the page at the time because all your info was watermarked on all those photos.

    larry's answer to my question kind of put it to rest for me at least; it's up to us, really, to determine the intent of the realtor/client who is watermarking the photos. Usually, regardless of their knowledge (or lack thereof) of copyrighting and licensing, their intent is really to market themselves and gain more clientele through those watermarks, rather than claim those photos as their own. I've never gotten wind of any agent saying they owned or had snapped photos I actually took, but I have had my photos stolen by an agent who took over a listing from an agent's former client.

    As an aside, I always find it hilarious that people ask so much of realtors and will not rehire a good one when their house doesn't sell (it must be the realtor's fault every time, right?), and instead hire a realtor who is too lazy and/or cheap to hire a photographer and would even stoop to stealing photos. Whether or not you know copyrighting and licensing as a realtor, you should know it's not okay to steal photos from a listing.

  4. I agree with Larry. It's our job to inform the agents what the copyright rules on photos are.
    I also go a step farther and put my name as a copyright in the right hand lower corner of each image. It's faint but it's there.

  5. Something to think about... if you are amending your contracts, you might think about allowing them to brand the photos but in the event they do to aalso include your name and website etc as part of it ... more free marketing... we don't have an issue here in Nashville with realtors or brokerages labeling the images ...yetzzz but something we do for our design, decorator and architect clients is to allow them to use the images wherever they choose just that they give us credit and it has worked out really well.. from instigate to pinterest to Houzz etc and a lot of third party magazine blog sites that feature the projects, we see a ton of new business from those postings

  6. In Texas, use of watermarking in the MLS is prohibited, so it is only possible through single-point-of-entry websites like SEL, where the photos are taken from the MLS and THEN watermarked for the agent. I just put my copyright in the metadata of all photos, so it's present even in the 1024x768 photos I deliver to my clients just for the MLS. That gets around the watermarking issue, because otherwise I'd probably still be putting my copyright in the metadata but also with a faint watermark. Something to think about also, is downloading an add-on for Lightroom and Photoshop that allows you to export your photos for upload to ImageRights, a service that scours the web for your photos and lets you know when they are found on other websites. This may cause a lot of false alarms from ImageRights when they flag photos on Zillow and Trulia, but if it's found anywhere else that isn't related to the sale of real estate and may thus be infringing on your copyright, you'll know.

    But with that said, I've found that it's not worth raising a stink over one or two photos found somewhere else, at least not for monetary gain. You'd spend more time trying to get the compensation for the infringed copyrights than you'd get back in money. At best one should get them taken down (if even that) after considering how those photos are being used by said infringement, but seeking damages for the infringement is probably more trouble than it's worth, unless you have thousands of photos you created being infringed upon. At the end of the day we're not Carol Highsmith and we won't be suing anyone for $1b more than likely.

  7. One of the big issues with many web sites and MLS's is that they strip the metadata from images. There have been some articles about that since there is an on again/off again push for an Orphan Works clause in Copyright law.

    If the agent's watermark is claiming Copyright of the images with the word "Copyright" or the © symbol, that is a violation of Copyright law and it will be a good idea to have a word with the agent. An agent or designer can claim a Compilation Copyright for an entire layout on a web page or flyer and that can sometimes be confusing if they don't credit the photos or make a note that the images are property of somebody else (like the photographer that took them). MLS's and RE websites often have a Copyright notice on their web pages and that doesn't necessarily mean that they are claiming the image Copyrights.

  8. @Ryan, if you have registered your images with the Copyright office, the minimum award should the case go to court is around $30k/infringement. That's definitely worth the effort to pursue. IP attorneys will often take the case on a contingency if your photos are registered and the infringement is pretty clear. Sometimes all they suggest to do is for them to send a couple of letters and get a settlement.

    It's rare that Copyright cases go to court and they tend to get settled for much less (but still in the thousands of dollars often times).

  9. I normally take my own pictures and it against our MLS Rules for a company sign, Builders Sign ar Agents name on any pictures so use the copy rite symbol and RDH

    I am still in compliant with our rules. Had a problem agent was trying to use my Images is what caused my to apply the water mark. When I do out source the pictures I water mark them with the Coy right logo and use the Company Int and inform his that I did that to try to protect his images.

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