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Who Owns the Copyright for Real Estate Images?

Published: 07/08/2018
By: larry

Jack in Florida says:

I'm starting to get confused about who actually owns copyright privileges to the images that are posted on the MLS. Our local area Real Estate Association seems to think that they do once they are on MLS. They even put their Association logo on the images posted to MLS. Do real estate photographers lose their copyright privileges once they're put on MLS and the internet?

Yes, I can see how you are confused. There is a lot of craziness out there about copyright. We have followed this problem here on the PFRE blog for many years and you'll find many posts and discussions on this subject. Here is a short summary of some of the answers to your question:

  1. Unless the photographer has signed some agreement otherwise (i.e., a work for hire agreement, etc.) whoever pushes the camera shutter button owns the rights (copyright) to the resulting photo.
  2. Copyright cannot be transferred without the photographer (copyright owner) signing a document authorizing the transfer of copyright.
  3. Some MLSs (not all) claim copyright and put a copyright notice on images uploaded to the MLS. This doesn't stand up legally unless the photographer signs some agreement.
  4. Most real estate agents are confused about copyright law so it is very important for photographers to explain this and their photo licensing rules to clients.

Over the past several years, we have been lucky enough to have attorney Joel Rothman as a PFRE reader. Joel is involved in litigating MLS copyright issues. Joel has helped us sort out all the copyright craziness from the perspective of photographers. This is a post from about 4 years ago that summarizes some of Joel's advice.

3 comments on “Who Owns the Copyright for Real Estate Images?”

  1. Not certain where Jack is in Florida or which local Association, but having acquired many of the regionals throughout Central Florida, MFRMLS is one of the largest. And yes, they do put their watermark on each photo submitted. Historically, this had nothing to do with them acquiring some copyright, rather, to address (and virtually eliminate) a problem of other Realtors snagging published photographs and using on subsequent listings of the property and other marketing. In disputes, they know if the offending photo originated from their (copyrighted - discussed later) material. Plus, the most common mis-useage, using by an agent later listing the same property, would have 2 watermarks on it.

    One of the nice things about MFRMLS is that they have their Rules and Regulation on their website in a keyword searchable format. https://www.mfrmls.com/support/rules-regulations/ Although I did prefer the earlier version which was .pdf and using the 'find' 'find next' command to this new HTML based format as I don't know if it is as accurate. Last week I searched for the word "video" and received zero hits within Rules and Regulations - just non-related news articles. Today I actually ran across the word "video" while researching "copyright."

    After reading, it is apparent that there is no "power grab" of photographers copyright. While there is reference to photographers copyright in Article 4.5, it is actually quite favorable and a model for other MLS. Article 14 specifically addresses copyright, including 14.2 explicitly dedicated to Copyright. And finally, Article 20 and how they are limited in the usage of the compiled data.

    Article 4.5 (applicable text) "All content including remarks, virtual tour photos and images must be owned, purchased or licensed by the listing broker/agent, from the content owner."

    Article 14 - The title is "Ownership of the MFRMLS Compilations and Copyrights" and the key word is "compilations". Essentially, all data submitted and in their database can be compiled into various searches and reports. They own the copyright to those compiled searches and reports, and place limits on the usage, including access and standards on the number of reports that can be printed/distributed by members. Article 14.1 does have the provision members with the copyright ownership or licensure grants authority for the usage in the database that generates the marketing searches and reports. Below, notice 1)no copyright grab but granting authority to use, and 2) the only thing copyrighted is their compilation, which, arguable, is appropriate as they assert their copyright claim to their compiled reports.
    "By submitting any property listing to MLS, the Participant represents that:
    They have been authorized to grant and also thereby grant authority for MLS to include the property listing content in its copyrighted MLS compilation and also in any statistical report or “comparable”.
    They have the authorization to grant and do grant the MLS the authority to include the property listing (data) in approved VOW and IDX displays for advertising on other Participant’s IDX and/or VOW compliant websites. (Revised 6/11)" "Note: Listing content includes, but is not limited to, photographs, images, graphics, audio and video recordings, virtual tours, drawings, descriptions, remarks, narratives, pricing information, and other details or information related to listed property."

  2. @Larry Gray, I think that many people don't know about the compilation Copyright and don't realize that a publication isn't claiming the photos, but just the document as a whole. I can't reproduce a magazine article without permission even though my photos and text are included on the page. The layout belongs to the publisher. It's one more level deeper into how ownership of creative works is figured. Music is even more complicated the way it's carved up.

    You might want to search for "media" or "content" rather than "video". They may have tried to make the regs as broad as possible since there are more things like 3D and VR to contend with now.

  3. I must have lady luck behind me as far as ownership. I've had vacation rental companies and RE agents use my images more than once and each time, as far as I know, they have contacted me and paid what I asked for the reuse of the images. I don't know whether it's an honor system here or that they're simply afraid of getting fined
    or sued over stolen images. As far as I know, as mentioned above, the photographer has the copyright of any image they can prove is theirs, unless there is a signed document otherwise.

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