'...But it's on the Internet!'

December 1, 1998

Whenever I hear a phrase like “I found it on the Internet,” I'm reminded of a software vendor who was demonstrating a product using Internet information.

The demonstrator was showing a potential customer—we’ll call him REALTOR® Bob—how to copy listing information from a private Web site, paste it into an “E-mail postcard,” and E-mail it to a prospect of Bob's.

The demonstrator didn’t include the listing broker's identity or the source of the information. In fact, she dressed up the postcard with information about Bob and his company.

Observing the demonstration, I asked, “Aren't there copyright or ethical problems with that?” The demonstrator replied, “Oh, it’s on the Internet. You don’t have to worry about any of that!”

Oh yes, you do. There are legal, Code of Ethics, and business ethics issues involved in the use of Internet information. In our scenario—minus the vendor—REALTOR® Bob copied listing information from a competitor's Web site and made it appear that the listing was his, not the competitor's.

First, is the information copyrighted? Although that’s still being defined by the law, it’s possible that Bob may have infringed on the listing broker's copyright.

Beyond the copyright issue, what of Bob's legal liability for presenting potentially inaccurate information? What if property condition information is inaccurate or, worse, fraudulent? Has Bob unwittingly made the (mis)representations his own? Even if he successfully defends a claim, what might the cost of defense of that claim be?

Second, Article 12 of our Code of Ethics calls on REALTORS® to present a “true picture” in advertising and representations. Also, Standard of Practice 12-4, which prohibits REALTORS®from offering or advertising property “without authority,” most likely applies as well. Can REALTOR® Bob assume that he has “authority” to advertise his competitor's listing?

Finally, there's the simple business ethics issue of what’s the right thing to do. The fact is, the listing is not Bob's, but he has made it look as if it were.

Let’s not lose sight of the Code's teaching that “the term REALTOR® has come to connote competency, fairness, and high integrity resulting from adherence to a lofty ideal of moral conduct in business relations.” Today’s high-tech environment shouldn't mean yesterday's moral conduct is lost.

Bruce Aydt

Attorney Bruce Aydt, ABR, CRB, SRS, is a national real estate educator, a Missouri real estate broker, and past chair of the National Association of REALTORS® Professional Standards Committee.

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