A jury has ordered the popular real estate website Zillow to pay $8.24 million in statutory damages for infringing photo company VHT’s copyright on images displayed on Zillow Digs, according to a Feb. 9 Securities and Exchange Commission filing. Zillow intends to immediately appeal the decision.

The background

VHT filed a federal copyright infringement suit against Zillow Group in July 2015. The photography company alleged that Zillow Group had been stealing tens of thousands of VHT’s photos and illegally using them for its own profit and gain.

The parties squared off on that issue at a Seattle jury trial starting Jan. 23., with the verdict returned Feb. 9. The verdict also awards VHT $79,875 in actual damages.

“We have persistently maintained our belief that this suit was without merit,” Zillow Group spokeswoman Amanda Woolley said in a statement to Inman. “While we are pleased that the majority of original claims were dismissed in this case, we regret that the jury did not find for us completely on those that remained, and will vigorously pursue all options to overturn their verdict.”

(In January 2016, VHT filed an amended complaint alleging copyright infringement of VHT’s images on Zillow.com, as well as Zillow Digs. In December 2016, the Court granted a motion for partial summary judgment that dismissed VHT’s claims with respect to Zillow.com.)

Woolley added: “We take copyright protection and enforcement seriously and will continue to respect copyright permissions across our platforms.”

Zillow noted in the SEC filing: “The Company intends to file motions in the district court seeking judgment for the Company on certain claims that are the subject of the verdict, and for a new trial on others.

“We intend to appeal any judgment that the court may enter on the verdict to the extent the district court does not set it aside as a result of these motions. The Company is seeking coverage from its insurance carrier for reimbursement of all recoverable legal expenses and any damages underlying the verdict that are not vacated.”

VHT retains copyright for all photos taken by photographers on its behalf. It 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.

VHT did not name any brokers or MLSs as defendants in this case, but that’s not to say that they should consider themselves off the hook in the future.

“[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,” attorneys Brian Larson and Mitchell Skinner wrote in their 2016 book Real Estate Listings & Copyright.

This case highlights how real estate agents and brokers may want to keep track of what happens to the photos they send to portal giant Zillow — and the terms under which they are sent.

Source: Caroline Feeney, inman.com

Andrea V. Brambila contributed to reporting to this story