Another Copyright Infringement Lawsuit for MLS Photos

In a previous post, we reported on a matter of copyright infringement costing a Realtor $250,000.  In that case, the Realtor pulled photos directly from the internet and saved them to the MLS of a home he had listed.  The photographer discovered this violation and sued the Realtor.  This error cost the Realtor a pretty penny.

Lest you think this type of risk is unique, another similar matter has arisen recently, but with a fact profile a little more alarming.

A Beverly Hills mansion was being sold with a list price in the millions.  The listing agent was given a memory stick containing photos of the property from the personal assistant of the seller.  The listing agent was told to use them on the MLS.  Because of this advice, the listing agent went ahead and used a number of the photos he found on the memory stick, some additional photos that he took with his own camera and also a few he had found online.

The trouble started when the photographer of the memory stick photos was alerted to the fact that her pictures were being used for a purpose she had not authorized.  The photographer had taken the pictures for a magazine article and given a copy to the owner as a gift – but never released the copyright on them or permitted them to be used for another purpose.  It turned out that the online picture the real estate agent found were also taken by this same photographer and used without permission.  To make matters worse, the listing agent also cropped out the “copyright” watermarks on the pictures – in violation of federal laws.

The real estate firm Mansion Realty and the listing agent were sued for this violation.  Despite the fact that the infringement happened unintentionally, the lawsuit was settled for $200,000.

The outcome and situation between this case and the case previously mentioned are similar, but this matter raises a few additional risk management points for real estate firms to consider.

  • Real estate agents need to make sure they have written permission to use photos before they are posted on the MLS, social media or sent in mailings.  Even when the owner of the property says to use them, this case shows us that might not even be enough!
  • Realtors need to be careful when cropping pictures for the MLS or other uses.  The listing agent in this case didn’t mean to break federal law, but he did.
  • Firms need to be careful when using clip art, saved photos or stock images.  Looking at pictures from the internet costs you nothing.  Saving those pictures and using them as your own can cost you $200,000.  Firms must assume that most anything in print (online or on paper) is protected by copyrights.

Avoiding real estate professional liability claims should be a goal for all firms.  Contact us to learn more ways about protecting yourself and your firm from claims through the use of sound risk management and malpractice insurance.