Earlier this month, a federal court awarded real estate photography company VHT $8.3 million in a copyright infringement suit against Zillow Group. Now, in what may seem like a counterintuitive move, VHT rival PlanOmatic announced that it will assign ownership and copyright of the listing photos taken by its photographers to its real estate broker clients.

  • Real estate photography company PlanOmatic has announced it will assign copyright and ownership of listing photos to its broker clients.
  • The new policy is meant to allow brokers to use listing photos as they see fit without worrying about legal ramifications.
  • PlanOmatic did not previously sell or license listing photos, so it is not foregoing any revenue as a result of the new policy.
  • Real estate agents and brokers may not want to tackle the misuse of listing photos themselves, according to the CEO of PlanOmatic rival VHT.

Earlier this month, a federal court awarded real estate photography company VHT $8.3 million in a copyright infringement suit against Zillow Group.

Now, in what may seem like a counterintuitive move, VHT rival PlanOmatic announced that it will assign ownership and copyright of the listing photos taken by its photographers to its real estate broker clients.

In its announcement, PlanOmatic specifically referenced the VHT case and said the verdict in that case convinced PlanOmatic that listing photos should be owned by the listing broker.

VHT did not name any brokers or MLSs in its case against Zillow — but the possibility that brokers or MLSs could be liable if they tried to give third parties (like Zillow) additional photo rights hung over the case like a specter.

In their 2016 book Real Estate Listings & Copyrightattorneys Brian Larson and Mitchell Skinner wrote, “[I]f the brokers or MLSs are purporting to license these photos to Zillow after the listings go off-market, VHT might also have claims against them; but it may view it as strategically unwise to make such claims.”

By announcing this change in its copyright terms, PlanOmatic is removing that dark cloud for its broker clients, though VHT’s CEO points out that in the event that someone misuses a listing photo, it would be up to brokers to enforce their copyright.

Brokers won’t have to pay

Kori Covrigaru

PlanOmatic’s decision will give the listing broker full control over photography assets created for each property, providing them with “the security of ownership and flexibility to use these assets how they see fit,” PlanOmatic said.

“The [VHT] court ruling involving one of our competitors caused us to question our own standard practices and whether our company retaining ownership of photos was in our clients’ best interest,” said Kori Covrigaru, PlanOmatic CEO, in a statement.

“After long and careful consideration, the answer was no.”

Photo copyright ownership is important to Jim Weix, broker/owner at The Real Estate Company in West Palm Beach, Florida: “I only do photography with people and firms where I own the pictures. I pay for them[;] I own them. Period. No exceptions,” he told Inman in an online conversation.

Brokers who work with PlanOmatic will not have to pay anything to obtain copyright and ownership of listing photos, and PlanOmatic is not changing its pricing model as a result of this new policy, Covrigaru told Inman via email.

Brokers will have the option of placing their copyright mark on their photos, the company said.

PlanOmatic works with thousands of agents nationwide and photographed more than 48,000 properties in 2016, Covrigaru said.

“We believe in lasting relationships with our broker clients and siding with them on this contentious issue is a big step toward maintaining those relationships,” said Aaron Rose, PlanOmatic’s executive vice president of sales, in a statement.

Is this a way for PlanOmatic to differentiate itself from its competitors?

That was not the reason behind the change, according to Covrigaru.

“Our goal was to empower our clients (real estate brokerages) to be free to market their listings and themselves without worrying about legal ramifications,” he said.

“The only value we saw in retaining ownership of the photographs was to reserve the right to take legal action against those who infringe.

“That’s not who we are, it’s not where we want to put our focus and efforts, and it does not align with our company values.

“It was never our motivation to use this disruption as a means to differentiate PlanOmatic from our competitors.”

He has not heard of other real estate photography companies implementing a similar policy, he said.

Not foregoing any revenue

With the exception of one brokerage, VHT retains copyright for all photos taken by photographers on its behalf and licenses the photos to listing agents and brokers solely for marketing the specific pictured property or the company or agent representing the property — and only while that property is on the market.

This is because VHT also licenses its photos for purposes other than marketing a specific property, such as for a coffee table book or a residential community website.

Unlike VHT, PlanOmatic has never done anything with the listing photos it retained copyright to, including selling or licensing them for money, according to Covrigaru.

Therefore, PlanOmatic is not foregoing any revenue as a result of this new policy.

The company’s relationship with its network of photographers has not changed and their existing rights remain the same: They are allowed to use the media they capture in connection with PlanOmatic for their own portfolio and self promotion, Covrigaru said.

“We have not received any negative feedback from within our network,” he said.

VHT responds

Brian Balduf

In an emailed statement to Inman, Brian Balduf, co-founder and CEO of VHT, emphasized that real estate brokers may not want to handle misuse of listing photos themselves.

“Since we first began our effort to address misuses of listing photographs, we have received a tremendous amount of support from brokerages and agents, as well as photographers and associations, across the country,” he said.

“While it continues to be a significant investment of resources, we know it is the right approach to protect our industry, and our valued clients and photographers.

“I don’t think many real estate professionals would want to tackle the issue themselves, especially on listings that have already been sold.

“As a full-service real estate photography provider, we invest the time, money and effort, so brokerages and agents can remain focused on their core business; marketing and selling property.”

However, depending on location, some real estate professionals may not have much of a choice in their professional photography — and therefore copyright — options. Andrea Geller, a Chicago-based real estate broker at Hot Property, The Chaz Walters Group at Coldwell Banker, told Inman: “My market is dominated by VHT. Nobody uses anyone else except themselves.”

Email Andrea V. Brambila.

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