A Minnesota federal court has considered whether a multiple listing service was entitled to receive a preliminary injunction for copyright infringement against the company that operates NeighborCity.com for its reposting of the MLS’s copyrighted listing data without permission.
Download the court's decision (PDF, 323 KB).
The Regional Multiple Listing Service of Minnesota, Inc. (“RMLS”) operates a multiple listing service with real estate listings from Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Real estate brokers that participate in the MLS upload their listing information to the MLS and either assign full ownership of the materials to RMLS or retain 75% of the ownership, with RMLS owning the remaining 25%. RMLS also has registered copyrights for its MLS compilation with the U.S. Copyright Office.
American Home Realty Network, Inc. (“Website Operator”) operates a website known as “NeighborCity.com” (“Website”). The Website purports to offer a national real estate search and provides rankings of real estate professionals. The data displayed on the Website comes from a variety of sources, including real estate professionals and public records. If the Website provides a lead to a real estate professional, the Website receives compensation when the lead results in a sale.
The Website contained listing information and photographs from the RMLS database. The Website did not use the same RMLS fields when it showed property listing on the site, such as not offering information about room dimensions. RMLS provided examples demonstrating the similarities between the RMLS listings and near identical reproductions on the Website Operator’s site of certain RMLS fields.
The Website Operator had not obtained a license or permission from RMLS for the posting of this information on the Website. When RMLS requested removal of this information, the Website Operator offered to enter into a licensing agreement with RMLS but did not stop its practice of using RMLS’s information.
RMLS rejected this offer and filed a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement and other claims arising from the alleged copyright infringement. RMLS sought a preliminary injunction from the court to prevent further unauthorized copying by the Website Operator.
The United States District Court for the District of Minnesota entered a preliminary injunction barring the Website Operator from using RMLS’s copyrighted information. The court first looked at whether it could exercise jurisdiction over the Website Operator. A court can only exercise jurisdiction over an out-of-state entity if the state’s “long arm statute” allows for the exercise of jurisdiction and the exercise of jurisdiction does not violate the Constitution’s due process protections.
The court found that it could exercise jurisdiction over the Website Operator. The Minnesota long-arm statute allows courts to exercise jurisdiction to the full extent allowable under the comports of due process. The looked at the Website Operator’s contacts with Minnesota, and found these contacts were sufficient to give the court jurisdiction over the Website Operator. The Website Operator allegedly used photos and other RMLS content to attract business in the state, entered into agreements with Minnesota brokers, and allegedly attracted at least one interested buyer through the RMLS information on the website. The court ruled that because the Website Operator allegedly used RMLS’s copyrighted works to conduct business in the state, the court had jurisdiction over the Website Operator for those claims.
Next, the court considered the Website Operator’s motion to transfer the case to California. When considering a change of venue, the court looks first at which forum would be more convenient for the parties and witnesses. While the Website Operator was based in California, RMNLS and many of the witnesses are based in Minnesota. Since no one factor clearly weighed in either party’s favor, the court deferred to the plaintiff’s choice of forum and so declined to transfer the case to California.
Finally, the court evaluated RMLS’s request for a preliminary injunction. In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, a party must show: first, it is likely to succeed on the merits; second, it is likely to suffer irreparable harm without the injunction; third, the balance of the equities is in its favor; and finally, an injunction is in the public interest.
RMLS had established a likelihood of success on its allegations of copyright infringement by the Website Operator. The act of registering a compilation is prima facie evidence of a valid copyright and so the burden shifts to the other party to prove invalidity of the copyright. Here, the court found that both the photographs and the “remarks” fields in RMLS were likely copyrightable and therefore RMLS would likely prevail on its infringement claims. RMLS demonstrated that the Website Operator had copied the RMLS, since it had used the exact photographs appearing RMLS’s site as well as word-for-word reproductions of the RMLS “remarks” fields. The court ruled that RMLS had not yet proven the copyrightability of the “field descriptors” it used to provide information about the property such as the property’s amenities, and so did not extend the preliminary injunction to those fields.
The court also determined that RMLS could suffer irreparable harm. The unauthorized use of its listing information has lessened the value of the IDX feed that RMLS provides to its members to attract new business. Second, the RMLS’s goodwill was likely to suffer from the unauthorized copying, since it had violated its agreement with its participants to not share its information with third parties.
The court ruled that the equities were in favor of RMLS, as the Website Operator was attempting to profit on its unauthorized use of RMLS’s copyrighted information. Upholding the copyright laws is also in the public interest. Therefore, RMLS had established the grounds for a preliminary injunction and so entered an injunction prohibiting the Website Operator from its unauthorized use of RMLS’s copyrighted information.
Reg'l Multiple Listing Serv. of Minnesota, Inc. v. Am. Home Realty Network, Inc., CIV. 12-965 JRT/FLN, 2012 WL 4470286 (D. Minn. Sept. 27, 2012). [This is a citation to a Westlaw document. Westlaw is a subscription, online legal research service. If an official reporter citation should become available for this case, the citation will be updated to reflect this information.]
Editor’s Note: NAR’s Legal Action Committee considered and approved a request for support of RMLS in this litigation.