Lifting editorial content for your blog or web site is a federal crime

copyright

DEADLINE NEWSROOM – Most real estate professionals who violate copyright laws say they didn’t know they were breaking the law, a response that should raise some eyebrows, given their allegiance to a code ethics and professional business practices.

In the brave new world of information technology, real estate professionals would serve their profession well by boning up on copyright protection law.

Members of the realty industry, primarily real estate agents, who were asked to remove copyright protected editorial content from their Web site or blog typically did so, but often only after claiming ignorance, a position which is not legally defensible.

As the saying goes, “ignorance of the law is no excuse”.

A smaller number of real estate professionals out right refused to return stolen published goods and sometimes become indignant, belligerent, even possessive of work legally belonging to someone else.

No matter the reaction, copyright violations — the theft of intellectual property — is a federal crime, and potentially a felony when repeated. It’s policed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Not long after the advent of the Internet, the FBI set up a cyber crime unit specifically to address how the Internet inherently made pilfering everything from the written word to CD tracks as easy as clicking a mouse.

Today, cyber criminals also find the Net easy pickings when it comes to fingering major motion pictures and other video content and the FBI is on the case.

In its Securities Exchange Commission filing, Google Inc. announced it had set aside more than $200 million in its recent acquisition of YouTube Inc. to cover possible losses from potential suits stemming from the large number of pirated videos posted on the newly acquired, successful video-sharing site.

Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company, recently filed a lawsuit against popular social networking site MySpace for copyright infringement of thousands of its artists’ works.

Book publishers and authors are also challenging Google’s plan to scan copyrighted books and make them searchable online.

Copyright violations at pandemic levels

The habit of snatching copyrighted editorial content from one Web site and posting it on another — fully unedited, uncut and without license, purchase or permission — is criminal behavior that has reached particularly alarming proportions in the real estate industry.

Copyright infringement is pandemic, reaching well into other industries, but the real estate industry has a particular penchant for editorial content.

That’s because editorial content sells well in the real estate world where informed consumers become paying clients who are much easier to serve than less informed consumers.

The currency of good, useful knowledge that really hits home is what pays buyers and sellers to visit realty Web sites and blogs when they aren’t buying and selling — which is most of the time.

A savvy real estate agent knows a captive audience is a powerful marketing tool.

UNFORTUNATELY, the desire to present a blog or Website that’s more user-informative and less a log of bull and listings is driving some real estate professionals to cheat at a criminal level.

A real estate writer who regularly polices the Internet for copyright violations of his work, searched a single blog service provider, Google’s popular Blogger.com, for incidents of his byline and received 402 hits. Virtually every hit was a real estate industry blog, not surprisingly.

Also see: Why is plagiarism so rampant in realty blogs?

What was surprising was that after spending hours painstakingly examining the first 100 incidents, the writer found more than three in 10 of the blogs had lifted not only his but other authors’ articles completely from their approved publishing site and placed it on their company blog.

The vast majority of the 100 bloggers also lifted and published the true publisher’s copyright mark, as if they had permission to do so.

In his unscientific research, the real estate writer emailed the first 25 bloggers about the purloined editorial content asking them to remove the articles or prove they had been licensed to use it.

Again, most complied, removed the editorial content, claimed they didn’t know it was illegal and apologized.

Copyright law ignorance is not uncommon.

A major ongoing class action copyright protection lawsuit filed by writers’ groups and freelance writers against a group of prominent publishers would indicate even professional purveyors of the written word, have their own interpretation of the copyright law.

Ignorance of the law no excuse

Most professionals, however, should know better. Trade groups with ethics policies frown on the practice.

The National Association of Realtors ethics code, for example, to which members are supposed to adhere, clearly advises “NAR encourages its members to respect others’ intellectual property rights just as we ask others to respect ours,” according to a spokesman.

That’s because editorial content crookery is not unlike one Web site framing or otherwise publishing listings it obtained, without rights, from the legal owner — a matter that, ironically, has raised the legal hackles of real estate trade groups again and again, sometimes in courts of law.

It’s a crime.

A copyright violation is a theft of someone elses property, just as are the crimes of pick pocketing, shoplifting, car jacking, burglary or bank robbery.

It’s a crime not unlike a real estate agent taking a listing, marketing the property, selling it and then collecting the commission only to have another agent in the office come by and swipe the check off his desk.

It’s stealing.

Copyright laws simply apply to a different kind of service or product. It’s called intellectual property.

“Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

“Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work,” the law says.

“Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright.”

The law is clear, but some of the reasons real estate professionals give for porting copyright-protected editorial content to their blogs are startling, given professionals are bound by a code of ethical, law-abiding behavior.

Some expect gratitude.

“You could thank me for posting your piece, and of course, properly attributing to you….but then that’s your choice,” said one.

Others do it because, well, they can.

“Please provide proof of ownership of listed article,” demanded another, who had already illegally published the article with the writer’s name clearly attached.

Still others offer crassly contradictory reasons steeped in hypocrisy.

“I have given credit to you in my, blog but am unwilling to pay you to give you credit for your article. Frankly, it’s not worth anything to me,” wrote a mortgage broker who found enough value in the “worthless” article to lift it for placement on his blog.

What’s most amazing is that the broker works for a company with an English language word that specifically means “quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”.

“The information in your article is public information and I am a fair to competent writer myself,” the broker railed, offering a personal interpretation of the term “public information.”

And there are strange, unrelated justifications.

“I have people steal loans from me all of the time. They do it by shopping for the lowest rate or fee, even after I’ve been working with them for a while.”

Not surprisingly, not a single real estate professional, who published the author’s copyright protected material, agreed to go public with his or her reasons.

But the point here is not to name names or try these real estate professionals in the press, but to inform them and others who would be copyright violators.

Why copyright protection exists

From a legal standpoint, for the layperson, here’s the properly attributed comments from RealtyTimes’ editor Blanche Evans in a previous article on the subject, “Just Say ‘No’ To Copyright Violations”.

“Just follow these golden copyright rules: If you don’t own it, it isn’t yours. If you have to get it from someone else, then it’s theirs. If it belongs to someone else, it probably isn’t free, so there will most likely be conditions attached to using it. All you have to (do to) find out what they (conditions) are, is to ask. If you want to use anything that belongs to someone else, always ask.”

Like most laws, the copyright law isn’t a violation of or in conflict with other rights or privileges, but an attempt at fairness and equity on behalf of the person who created the intellectual property. The law comes with “fair use” exceptions allowing non-commercial entities, including charities and educational institutions, to use certain materials for charitable and educational purposes.

Anyone who regularly handles copyright protected materials has a duty to know at least the law’s basic tenets and the principles behind its power.

From a more practical standpoint, nabbing copyright protected work for your blog implies permission has been granted. If that editorial content is used out of context, say to make a point about some heated issue, there’s the potential for an implied agreement or disagreement from the author, which the author likely never intended.

Such use could bring on a libel suit, in addition to charges of copyright violation. No matter what favor you may think you are doing a writer, no matter how little value you attribute to the editorial content or to the efforts that went into producing it and no matter how many reasons you can come up with to justify a copyright violation, no one wants their work stolen and bandied about like worthless fodder.

Stolen copyright protected property is often devalued property, watered down by frequent appearances. That gives it a canned, everybody-owns-it value. When that’s the case, by extension, nobody wants it.

Bottom line?

There’s always a bottom line for someone’s hard work.

Intellectual property has value.

If you reduce or remove that value in any way, you could be liable for those losses.

Follow the legal golden copyright protection rules instead of looking for loopholes that could snag you in a court suit.

Ignorance doesn’t give anyone a free pass to break the law.

Educate yourself.

Read: “Why is plagiarism so rampant in realty blogs” and see:

•  Intellectual Property Theft: Stealing

•  National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center)

•  U.S. Department of Justice Intellectual Property Task Force

•  Copyright.gov


Originally published July, 24 2007

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About the author

DeadlineNews.Com's Publisher, Executive Editor and Founder, Broderick Perkins, was the first real estate journalist to manage a daily newspaper's online real estate section. He parlayed more than 30 years of old-school journalism into a digital real estate news service offering "News that really hits home!" -- the Silicon Valley bootstrap, DeadlineNews.Com. Network with Broderick Perkins on LinkedIn, FaceBook, Twitter, Google+ and the Bloomberg Business Exchange.

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