Real estate website NeighborCity.com is currently in the midst of copyright infringement allegations filed by two regional multiple-listing services (MLS) for uploading and posting copyrighted materials, specifically photographs of homes, without the consent of the listing services.
Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. (MRIS), based in Rockville, Maryland, filed the complaint on March 28, 2012, against NeighborCity (and its parent company, American Home Realty Network (AHRN)) and states that “the creation of unauthorized derivative works incorporating the MRIS database” is a direct violation of copyright laws. The St. Paul, Minnesota-based Regional Multiple Listing Service of Minnesota Inc. (NorthstarMLS) filed a similar suit against AHRN on April 18, 2012. Other notable players in the claims against NeighborCity include Berkshire Hathaway Inc. the second largest real estate brokerage operation and owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.
The groups in question, however, cannot show the proper chain of title to the photographs of the houses, NeighborCity asserts. The claim against NeighborCity alleges that AHRN reproduced and displayed listed content without any permission. However, the photographs featured on the website are known to be posted by agents and homeowners, and since Northstar and MRIS are unable to definitively show from where the photographs originated, NeighborCity says that they are unable to claim copyright protection. The company goes on to argue that the lawsuit is nothing more than bullying tactics by their accusers and that it is in an effort to ruin the credibility of the company.
NeighborCity has countered the copyright allegations with an anti-trust lawsuit, stating that the intent of the MLS is to deny the “right to inform American consumers to assist them in making choices on the biggest purchases of their lives” (Digital Journal). NeighborCity’s website shows real estate buyers and sellers each real estate agent’s history, including average sales price and time on the market. It also displays a rating system for each agent, which has been considered to be one of the sources and reasons for the claims against NeighborCity, saying that real estate agents are not happy with being rated by the website.
The allegations of copyright infringement, as well as the lawsuits themselves, have raised many eyebrows. One of the causes for skepticism comes from an accidental e-mail sent to the AHRN CEO indicating that the claims had been created in an attempt to undermine the credibility and reputation of the company. Another stems from the fact that MRIS was mostly claiming copyright over factual information, which seems to suggest that the lawsuits have very little to do with copyright at all. TechDirt.com also reported that AHRN received many threats of a similar format and that the National Association of Realtors (NAR), which had offered to financially back the legal expenses of the accusers in this lawsuit, came under fire for violating antitrust laws several years earlier (Tech Dirt) . If this is the case, the allegations against NeighborCity.com are simply done to remove their business from power, and the defendants’ claims that the lawsuits are bullying tactics to besmirch the name of NeighborCity would hold merit.