Copyright Judgment Against Zillow Upheld

June 23, 2017

A federal judge in Seattle upheld a portion of a lower court’s ruling finding Zillow liable for copyright infringement against VHT Inc., a photography and image management services company. Zillow is now ordered to pay $4 million in damages to VHT over the misuse of more than 2,700 of the company’s photographs, but the judgment is less than the original $8.3 million awarded to VHT by a jury in February.

VHT Inc., which contracts with real estate professionals to produce listing photos for marketing purposes, sued Zillow in 2015, claiming that the real estate portal was using VHT images on its Zillow Digs website in ways that violated VHT’s copyright terms. VHT says the use of the images violated its copyright. Zillow Digs features residential design, home improvement, and remodeling ideas—not actual listings.

Though the judge cut the damages in the case by half, VHT CEO and cofounder Brian Balduf says the ruling “protects the interests of photographers, real estate agents, brokerages, home buyers, and sellers.”

Zillow appealed the jury decision in February, telling GeekWire: “We have persistently maintained our belief that this suit was without merit. While we are pleased that the majority of the original claims were dismissed in this case, we regret that the jury did not find for us completely on those that remained and will vigorously pursue all options to overturn their verdict. We take copyright protection and enforcement seriously and will continue to respect copyright permissions across our platforms.”

VHT also originally alleged that Zillow used images in real estate listings inappropriately, but a judge dismissed those claims in December 2016. VHT says it still plans to appeal that ruling. The company says tens of thousands of photographs were displayed on Zillow’s individual home detail pages after properties were no longer on the market—a violation of VHT’s copyright policy.

“We’ve been very encouraged by the support we’ve received from the industry,” Balduf says. “The issue of usage rights goes well beyond VHT. There are thousands of photographers shooting real estate photographs—and even agents who shoot their own properties—who all need to be assured that the photographs will be used properly.”

The case also serves as an important reminder about copyright laws. “In this digital world, some people don’t understand that images displayed online are not public domain and require licensing,” says Nancy Wolff, outside counsel for the Digital Media Licensing Association, a copyright protection advocacy group. “DMLA encourages copyright advocacy and education and using copyright laws to encourage proper licensing of images. [This case] should serve as a strong warning to those who illegally use copyrighted content on the Internet, instead of licensing content.”

Source: VHT Studios and REALTOR® Magazine