Brokerage, Contributor Article, Industry News

Photos aren’t yours for the taking

Realtor Notebook

I can’t help but wonder how the property photos that real estate agents take are going to look on the newest version of the iPad. The technology we use to view pictures on the Internet gets better all the time, and so does the technology that we use to take them.

Monitors have improved and so have the screens on our mobile devices. The only thing that has not improved are the property photos used to market real estate on the Internet.

Maybe brokers need to get out there and protect their brands by demanding better photographs. I can’t see that happening, but theoretically it is possible.

When I started as an agent we could put only six digital images in our multiple listing service (MLS). Now we can put in 20 photos. Most of the real estate websites allow for at least 10 photos. For some agents that means 10 or more really crappy photographs.

Some or all of those photos may be stolen.

Some agents understand the importance of images for marketing. But instead of taking them all themselves — or paying someone to take them — they have found a free alternative. They surf the Internet and find pictures others have taken and use them.

I find my own photographs in all sorts of places, including the MLS, being used for marketing homes for sale or rent.

This week I found some of my photographs on, Zillow and Trulia. One of the photographs is watermarked, which makes it even easier for me to prove it is mine.

I send out cease-and-desist letters and ask people to stop using the photographs, but that isn’t always enough. The photos that get stolen the most often are pictures of local parks and of local landmarks or of apartment building and condo buildings. I track how these photos are used and I learn from it.

None of the real estate sites that I found my photos on took them or posted them themselves. But they are responsible for the content on their sites. Although the real estate sites will remove stolen photos when they are brought to their attention, I am waiting to see if repeat offenders ever get their accounts suspended.

When I find my photos on our MLS I can always get help from the MLS, but I always start by contacting the listing agent directly, because I believe that is the right thing to do.

People say the silliest things when I ask them to stop using my photos. The most common reason people give for taking the photos is that they found them on the Internet in Google Images. There are people who believe that Google Images is a special website for public domain images, or at least that is what they tell me when I challenge them.

I explain that Google is a search engine that finds images and other content on the Internet. Last winter when I explained how Google Images works to a photo thief he told me that he never saw the link to my website when he was on Google, as if to say he wasn’t at fault for taking my photo.

Most images on the Internet belong to someone. It is up to the people who own them to decide how they are to be used and who can use them. It is wrong to take and use images that belong to someone else without permission. Photographs are not free, and just because they can be found through search engines does not make them public domain.

Before using pictures that do not belong to them, agents should consider the possibility of legal action against them, or having accounts suspended from the third-party sites or being fined by their local MLS.

Teresa Boardman is a broker in St. Paul, Minn., and founder of the St. Paul Real Estate blog.

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