• A lawsuit filed in California federal court by CoStar Realty Information alleges that Apartment Hunters stole “hundreds, if not thousands” of Apartment.com’s real estate listings and copyrighted photographs.
  • The lawsuit notes that this is not the first time Apartment Hunters has run afoul of the law.
  • CoStar claims it is entitled to millions in damages and a permanent injunction, and Apartment Hunters had not yet filed any response to the lawsuit.

The owner of Apartments.com, a leading national apartment rental listing website, is suing competitor Apartment Hunters Inc. for allegedly copying and republishing its copyrighted photographs and other materials.

According to the lawsuit, filed Dec. 18 in California federal court by Apartments.com owner CoStar Realty Information Inc. and operator Apartments LLC, Apartment Hunters stole “hundreds, if not thousands” of Apartment.com’s real estate listings and copyrighted photographs.

What’s more, Apartment Hunters, which operates several apartment rental websites of its own, went to great lengths to conceal the theft in a “massive piracy scheme” that has allowed the company to unfairly compete with Apartments.com, the complaint alleges.

“Defendants’ business is based, in significant part, on the willful and systematic theft of CoStar’s intellectual property,” CoStar alleges in the complaint. “Defendants’ conduct is knowing, willful and volitional, and forms part of a pattern of repeated disregard for the law and intellectual property owners.”

Basis for the claims

Apartments.com is operated by Chicago-based Apartments LLC. According to the complaint, CoStar acquired Apartments LLC in April 2014 and spent the next 10 months integrating its commercial real estate database with Apartment.com’s marketing platform, employing more than 1,000 researchers to verify existing information on multifamily properties, collect new information and take photographs of the exterior, common areas, individual units, amenities and surrounding neighborhoods of those properties.

Since re-launching Apartments.com in February of this year, CoStar has continued to publish real-time apartment data and availability information, making updates to about 75,000 listings every day, the lawsuit states.

Apartment Hunters, based in Dana Point, California, operates a slew of websites listing homes and apartments for rent in California, including ApartmentHunterz.com, 4rentinla.com, 4rentinnewyork.com, wetakesection8.com, ifindrentals.com, featuredrentals.com, leaseinsandiego.com, rentinsanfrancisco.com, w6.lt, listmyrentals.com and ineed2move.com.

The complaint alleges that most of these websites appear to require a user to pay a $49 monthly membership fee to access the listings.

According to the complaint, Apartment Hunters procures “a substantial portion of the listings displayed on their network of websites, including the listing information and photographs within them, by copying content from other internet listing sites without authorization — including from Apartments.com.”

Although CoStar said it cannot determine exactly how many listings Apartment Hunters misappropriated without formal discovery, it estimates that Apartment Hunters may have “copied and displayed on their network of websites dozens, if not hundreds, of CoStar’s listings, including the CoStar-verified information, and the hundreds, if not thousands, of CoStar-copyrighted photographs contained within those listings.”

Even without access to Apartment Hunters’ internal documents, CoStar said it has discovered more than 100 of its copyrighted photographs on ApartmentHunterz.com, “suggesting that discovery will reveal scores of additional instances of past or ongoing infringement and misappropriation just on that website.

“And discovery into the other websites owned or operated by defendants — eight of which have already been discovered to be displaying CoStar copyrighted photographs — will only further multiply the documented scope of their infringement of photographs and misappropriation of time-sensitive listing information,” Costar said.

But CoStar also alleges that Apartment Hunters and the company’s owners, Kevin Shayan and Steven Shayan, are aware that their actions are illegal, and “have taken numerous steps to attempt to conceal their actions, including cropping and otherwise altering the photographs posted on their websites to remove the CoStar logo.”

“Defendants employ an automated copying or scraping process to enable a high volume of copying,” CoStar alleges. “In a three-week period through November 2015, for instance, IP addresses believed to be controlled by defendants were responsible for more than 160,000 hits on Apartments.com, predominantly in irregular bursts (i.e., thousands of hits only seconds apart from one and other).

“Such a staggering quantity of site visits, particularly in the observed pattern, is possible only with the use of automated tools. Defendants appear to periodically update the information and photographs copied without CoStar’s permission, apparently in high volume batches, further indicating the use of an automated copying or scraping process.”

CoStar further alleges in its complaint that Apartment Hunters use more than 500 different IP addresses to access Apartments.com, a tactic commonly used by copyright pirates to get around a website’s anti-abuse monitoring software.

Apartment Hunters: A history of violations?

This lawsuit is not the first time Apartment Hunters has run afoul of the law. CoStar notes in its complaint that in the last decade, Apartment Hunters has been sanctioned at least three times by the California Bureau of Real Estate for violations of the California Real Estate Law, “including for conduct substantively identical to” that which is alleged in this lawsuit.

In 2005, the California Bureau of Real Estate ordered Steven Shayan to desist and refrain from engaging in business as a prepaid rental listing service (PRLS) after finding that he supplied prospective tenants with rental property listings for a fee in advance, which under California state law requires a PRLS real estate broker license.

According to court documents, Apartment Hunters obtained a PRLS license in 2007, but continued to engage in PRLS business under the names 4RentinLA and RentInSanFrancisco. Acting Real Estate Commissioner Barbara J. Bigby restricted Apartment Hunter’s licenses in 2011, but the license expired in March 2014.

A leasing manager later complained to the bureau that Apartment Hunters used copyrighted photos and information about four rental properties without his permission, then posted them on other websites including Trulia and Zillow. Administrative Law Judge Eric Sawyer revoked the company’s licenses in May of this year.

“Despite these repeated sanctions, and the loss of Apartment Hunters’ license to operate, defendants brazenly continue to engage in the same sorts of unlawful conduct,” CoStar states in the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Southern Division, asserts claims for direct copyright infringement, misappropriation and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law against Apartment Hunters and its owners as well as contributory copyright infringement against the Shayans.

The complaint does not seek a specified amount of damages, but CoStar claims it is entitled to “millions of dollars in damages and a permanent injunction to prevent further irreparable harm.”

The case has been assigned to Judge Josephine L. Staton. At press time, Apartment Hunters had not yet filed any response to the lawsuit.

Email Amy Swinderman.

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