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Stemming the Tide of Data Misappropriation – Who’s Using Your Information?

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By Reva Nelson

online_real_estate_listingEditor’s Note: Today’s lead story was first reported in RISMedia’s Power Broker Report, last month. Many of the industry’s leading brokerage owners recently have expressed concern over the misappropriation of the data their brokerage firms painstakingly collect to enable their organizations to effectively service their customers. This article is the first in a series of articles that will be examining this issue as it directly relates to our industry and many service organizations seeking to profit from the data hard working real estate professionals create every day.

Gone are the days when REALTORS® would do the legwork and provide a stack of listings to buyers. Would-be buyers can view listing data any number of places online, though they tend to go in droves to the big online real estate portals (think realtor.com®, Homes.com, Trulia, Zillow). Yet, issues surrounding who owns the listing data, and how it is being disseminated across the Web—at worst, illegally and, at best, contrary to the intentions of its owners—continue to raise the ire of real estate brokers and online listings organizations.

“Giving your data to a third party, who then wants you to pay them for business generated by that listing—either directly or indirectly—is analogous to lending someone your watch and then paying them later to tell you what time it is.”
–Alex Perriello, president and CEO of Realogy Franchise Group

A growing number are asking how they can protect their data, their brands and their business from a rising tide of data misappropriation. What follows are some important considerations for protecting those hard-won assets—your listings.

Understanding the Issues
There are three areas are of primary concern: 1) data scraping; 2) data leakage; and 3) advertising practices of real estate portals. MLSs and brokers with effective websites tend to be most concerned about data scraping, which is the illicit copying or indexing of data by computer programs from a website. The second type of widespread misuse is data leakage, in which once-licensed data is repurposed or passed on for unauthorized uses.

“There is a whole flood of secondary data, where you send your data someplace and then it flows right out the back door,” says Curt Beardsley, vice president of consumer and industry development at Move, Inc.

Jason Doyle, vice president of Homes.com, agrees. “Brokers need to be educated about where their listings are going, both directly or indirectly,” he advises.

Many scrapers are repackaging and selling the data for unauthorized uses—such as lead aggregation, market analytics or trending applications—to companies such as banks, lending institutions or hedge funds.

“There’s a huge grey market for this data,” explains Marty Frame, president of Realtors Property Resource®. For example, “Lending and loan servicing institutions often will buy data from aggregators to check listing prices on short sales, review appraisals or monitor for listings in the bank’s portfolio that might be for sale. That bank may ask for a warranty that the aggregator has the right to sell the listings, but this data is almost always outside the terms of a valid license.”

But the issue that brokers tend to be angriest about is what happens to their data once they release it—free of charge—to real estate portals such as Trulia or Zillow. On the plus side, the sites drive a lot of traffic and exposure to listings. The business model of portals is to generate revenue by selling advertisements and, in some cases, leads, rather than selling property. But many brokers complain about the inappropriate sale of advertising space by these portals around their listings, which often promote competing brokers or ancillary businesses such as mortgage lenders. These ads, brokers say, are confusing buyers about who owns the listing, and driving traffic—and business—to their competitors. Moreover, many brokers feel railroaded into buying ad space around their own listings simply because if they don’t, their competitors will.

“Real estate portals are using the authorized data in ways that were never contemplated,” says David Charron, president and CEO of Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS). “Brokers have to spend a lot more money to protect their own assets.”

Alex Perriello, president and CEO of Realogy Franchise Group, comments: “Giving your data to a third party, who then wants you to pay them for business generated by that listing—either directly or indirectly—is analogous to lending someone your watch and then paying them later to tell you what time it is.”

It’s worth noting that REALTOR.com®, like its competitors, sells ad space around listings, although never to a competing broker. Explains Beardsley, “Our monetization strategy is around the enhancement of listings as a paid product, but if REALTORS® don’t buy the ads next to their listings, we don’t slap a competitor’s brand on it.”

To a lesser extent, data accuracy and integrity are also at issue, since many sites are not updated in a timely way or receive content from unreliable sources. Potential buyers are given incorrect property details and out-of-date information, which frustrates consumers and reflects poorly on brokers.

How can brokers protect/maximize the value of their listings?

1. Understand the terms and conditions of sites you are authorizing. Whether you’re signing license agreements with a virtual tour company, opting in to list with a syndicator, or uploading photos to the MLS, you have to know exactly what permissions you are granting. If necessary, engage an attorney to make sure you understand the license agreement that lays out exactly what the third party can and can’t do with your data.

“Better yet, insist they abide by the practices and procedures that you, or whomever you designate, establish with them directly in writing. If online publishers are unwilling to abide by those practices, then don’t send them your listing content,” advises Perriello.

“Brokers need to go out and assess the risks and benefits of working with listing sites,” says Doyle. “They need to ask themselves, ‘Am I getting enough value to feel comfortable with the risk of where this company is putting my data?’”

2. Enforce copyrights. There is a growing attention to copyright enforcement. Typically, brokers hold the copyrights in works that the broker and their employees create. They can’t copyright facts, such as the number of bedrooms and square footage, but original text, photographs—assuming they’ve taken them—even list price are copyrightable. Once brokers turn listings over to a multiple listing service (MLS), the MLS can copyright the compilation of the data, i.e. selection, coordination and arrangement of the database. Yet tracking down and enforcing copyright infringement can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Brokers are dependent on MLSs to police the data. To enforce these ownership rights, you need to be willing to lawyer up. As a couple of high-profile lawsuits have confirmed, MLSs are getting more serious about fighting piracy.

3. Protect your IDX site with anti-scraping software. If you have an IDX website, anti-scraping software is a must-have. In fact, MLSs may soon require it. Some in the industry hold that watermarking images and seeding data are complementary approaches to protecting data, and can enable you to track data, monitor compliance and enforce ownership rights.

“Data seeding can catch nonprofessionals, but sophisticated data thieves can strip out seeds,” explains Gregg Larson, president and CEO of Clareity Consulting. “Watermarked photos are more challenging, but the majority of stolen data uses don’t require photos. Scrapers often don’t even download photos.”

4. Think through where your data belongs. Every broker has decisions to make about with whom they choose to share their data—decisions they make when they put their inventory on the MLS, and can update at any time. In fact, a number of companies have decided to withdraw from the major sites. “This is the brokers’ decision, since the asset belongs to them. They worked hard to get it, and get to decide where they want to distribute it,” says Charron.

Brokers, take heed. It’s time to get more engaged with where, how and under what terms you distribute your data going forward. Protecting your data and managing its distribution channels are critical to safeguarding your business and your brand.

Reva Nelson is a contributing editor for RISMedia.

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