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Originally published Friday, July 10, 2015 at 5:05 PM

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Zillow sued by real-estate photo firm

A leading real-estate photography firm is suing Zillow over use of pictures meant for home listings but also used on its website for home-improvement ideas.

Seattle Times business reporter


A national provider of professional photographs to real estate agents is suing Seattle-based Zillow Group, claiming it engaged in “massive and intentional” copyright infringement by reusing images to sell ads instead of homes.

The lawsuit sets up a showdown between the nation’s leading real-estate media website and the real-estate industry’s leading photography company, at a time when people share content easily on the Internet and creators are losing ground in getting paid for unlicensed sharing of their works.

Illinois-based VHT’s allegations focus on Zillow Digs, a home-improvement site that Zillow launched in February 2013. Users click on photos of looks they want to recreate in a home, and Zillow provides a cost estimate for materials and labor, along with links to advertisers who sell those goods and services.

The suit, filed Thursday in federal court in Seattle, alleges that Zillow discussed with VHT the possibility of licensing its photographs for use on the Digs site, but never did so. VHT alleges that Zillow has a limited license to use its photographs only in listings for homes for sale.

In a statement, Zillow said it “has abided by the terms of the licenses agreed to by the parties who provided these photos.” The company said that it respects copyright protections but “will vigorously fight the allegations” made in the suit.

VHT said it serves more than 75,000 real estate agents. It claims the nation’s largest database of residential photographs, with more than 4 million unique images of home interiors and exteriors.

“The more interesting thing here will be the broader issue on how photographs are disseminated on the Internet and attempts by photographers to control that,” said Margaret Esquenet, a copyright lawyer at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner in Washington, D.C. “What are the rights of licensees? Are the licensees needing broader rights than they’re getting?”

VHT alleges that after it complained in writing to Zillow in mid-2014 about the photos on Digs, Zillow began encouraging users on its home listings site to add the photographs themselves to the Digs site, where Zillow tags objects in the images and links them to advertisements.

“Zillow cannot hide behind safe harbors and blame others for its own brazen theft,” VHT said in the lawsuit.

While VHT did not say how much it seeks in damages, it did say it found at least 316 of its images used without authorization on Zillow Digs. It also said that VHT’s customers pay between $10 and $100 per photograph.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or On Twitter @sbhatt