Monday musing: On listing scrapers, copyright, and MLSs

“Industry Cracks Down on Listing Scraping” is the headline of the Realtor magazine story. The gist of it: said earlier this year that it is making efforts to block automated bots from trying to scrape listing data from its more than 1 million pages per day.

“Scraping happens every day, and it’s something that’s surprisingly inexpensive for cybercriminals to do,” Amit Kulkarni, Move’s creative director, said in a blog post detailing’s efforts to curb scraping.

This is actually interesting, but not for the reasons you — and possible Realtor mag — might think.

It all centers around one piece of information: You can’t copyright facts.

You can copyright the presentation of them, but not the facts themselves. That’s why if a newspaper reports that “Jane Doe was arrested for theft” you can spread that information far and wide… but you can’t just cut-and-paste the article into your own website.

That in mind, think how it applies to real estate. The fact that 123 Main Street is a four-bedroom colonial, with an asking price of $320,000 — well, that’s not copyrightable information. Neither is the name and contact info of the listing agent, or most of the property details. (What is copyrightable is the agent-written description: “This lovely, modern home, nestled in the corner of a tree-lined cul-de-sac…” But the rest? Nope.)

And that’s the problem with the battle against listing scraping. You can try to stop automated programs from grabbing every listing on a site, but that’s a technical issue. Legally, it’s a bit murkier. That’s not to say that creating a program to grab every listing is perfectly legal (I don’t know the details of the law, and it varies from state to state anyway), but it’s not quite as simple as “no one can take those listings without our permission.”

Then you start getting into issues like “pocket” listings — where properties aren’t listed on an MLS, but are communicated agent to agent. Not to say those are good or bad, but listing scrapers certainly add some cloudiness to the discussion.

This is an industry that’s based on sharing information, but that wants to limit who can do that sharing… and how. But it’s also in a world where information spreads instantaneously, and where it’s impossible to keep secrets, let alone try to micromanage who knows what.

Bottom line: This is an issue that’s a long way from playing out.

About Andrew Kantor

Andrew is VAR's editor and information manager, and -- lessee now -- a former reporter for the Roanoke Times, former technology columnist for USA Today, and a former magazine editor for a bunch of places. He hails from New York with stops in Connecticut, New Jersey, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Roanoke.
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