Know Who's Using Your Data

Listing information is everywhere. Is that a good thing?

January 1, 2011

When was the last time you fully read the terms of use before registering at a Web site? If brokers and MLSs don’t carefully read and understand those terms before sharing listing data, they could be sorry.

That’s the warning former NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® President Cathy Whatley, the association’s representative on the board of Move Inc. (which operates, laid out for NAR’s Board of Directors at its meeting in November.

In the mid-1990s, during the initial collision of commerce and the Internet, the issue of data ownership was much debated. Today, the speed at which listings are syndicated around the Internet and the sheer volume of information that’s online have put the issue of data ownership back into the spotlight.

Whatley told the NAR directors that when brokers and associates syndicate their listing data, they might be signing away far more rights than they realize. That’s because deep in the fine print of the terms-of-use agreements of some companies that syndicate listings is carte blanche permission for the sites to keep the data, present it how they want, and send it to sites of their choosing.

"Your intentions might be good, to get that listing out to as many sites as possible to increase exposure, but you need to understand what you’re allowing others to do with your data," says Whatley. "Whether the information is updated, whether there are duplicative listings on a site, whether the listing is removed after it’s sold—these are all things you need to know before you sign, because if consumers come across inaccuracies in your data, you’re the one whose reputation is on the line."

WAV Group—a technology consulting firm headed by Mike Audet, Marilyn Wilson, and Victor Lund—brought attention to the issue in late 2009 with a white paper that said the terms of use of some listing resyndication companies give them irrevocable and perpetual rights to use, sell, and lease practitioners’ data. In some cases, the terms require practitioners to indemnify the companies against third-party claims involving the data.

"They can keep your listing data and contact data and use it as they like for as long as they like," the report said. "These broad terms of use may be of some concern to some brokers."

And it’s not just listing syndicators whose rights to the data might be seem overly generous. Data aggregators that compete for MLS data to create market analysis tools may be paying for that data—or getting it through partnerships with MLS subscribers—but using it, or restricting it, in ways the MLSs never intended, according to Marty Frame, president of the REALTORS Property ResourceTM, the NAR-owned company that’s aggregating data on every parcel of property in the United States to create a free market analysis tool for REALTORS®.

Some of the agreements that MLSs are signing with the data aggregators, for example, prohibit them from making the data available to other aggregators, including RPR. But it is RPR that will put REALTORS®’ interests first, Frame says. RPR is prohibited by its operating agreement with NAR from redistributing the listings it licenses. "We uphold that commitment with the utmost integrity," Frame says.

"I think it’s fair to say that most MLSs are aware that some level of unauthorized redistribution of their data is occurring," Frame says. "They can react when verifiable cases are brought to their attention. But they don’t have the technical, administrative, and legal resources to be proactive [in watching whether their data is being used as they intended]." He suggests that, to prevent unintended uses, MLSs consider incorporating clear financial penalties into their third-party access agreements.

And while such a suggestion may smack at the heart of those who love the free spirit of the Internet, it’s just smart business, says NAR CEO Dale Stinton. "No one would argue with the adage ‘information wants to be free,’" Stinton says. "But you don’t grow a field of corn and then sit by and watch the crows steal your crop one ear at a time."

The bottom line, for brokers, sales associates, and MLSs: Take the time to read the fine print.

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.