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MLS Threatens Legal Action, Forces Housing 123 to Close

Posted by Tim / June 16, 2008

Legal Letter CopyrightAlmost a year after unveiling Housing 123, founders Kevin Lai and Travis Fielding have succumbed to the legal arm of MLS and shuttered the site. It's an unfortunate turn of events for a site many thought offered a much more user-friendly way to navigate MLS's extensive Toronto real estate listings.

A rational person might have predicted that MLS would have taken some lessons from these guys and implemented a similar Google Maps feature of their own. Or maybe they could have hired the duo to create it for them? But sadly, the Canadian Real Estate Association decided to take the legal road and fire off a cease and desist letter.

In a post made today to the Housing 123 blog, Kevin and Travis announce the immediate closing of the site and explain that they simply didn't have the time or money to see the legal battle through. While the site definitely offered a user experience and accessibility to listings unmatched by the official MLS web site, it was probably also undeniable that Housing 123 was in violation of the terms of use (copyright) by scraping the listings data without authorization.

A copy of the legal letter (excerpt at top) has also been posted to the blog.

Discussion

26 Comments

jonson roth / June 16, 2008 at 02:02 am
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No kidding. Too bad most businesses that don't understand new media also don't have the foresight to "consult" rather than "combat". Too bloody short-sighted - especially since housing123 was a much better way to digest all that info. I guess I'll go back Craigslist to find an apt. in Toronto.
Ryan L. / June 16, 2008 at 05:47 am
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You do recall when Craigslist threatened legal action when listpic tried to do something similar to housing 123, right?
Angus / June 16, 2008 at 07:43 am
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Real estate has always been slow to change and evolve, this doesn't surprise me.
bella / June 16, 2008 at 07:45 am
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Shortsighted of MLS as traffic ultimately gets driven to their site!
Dan / June 16, 2008 at 10:34 am
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MLS fools. Such a short-sighted knee-jerk reaction demonstrates both a lack of understanding of how the web works, and a disrespect for people who are forced to use MLS's difficult site. Why, in this day and age, do we still have real estate agents anyway? Many of them offer a useful and valuable service, but many agents are just milking a monopoly on information to the disadvantage of everyone else.
www.forsalebyownercanada.com
www.ownerlist.net
www.virtual-agent.com
www.bytheowner.com
and there are many others. MLS should either get with the program or get packing, just like the music industry and newspaper industry are, among others.
Kate / June 16, 2008 at 11:22 am
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Housing 123 was an amazing reimagining of real estate listings
MLS are really short-sighted on this one.
Hamish Grant / June 16, 2008 at 11:29 am
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I think this has more to do with MLS not wanting the fire to be stolen from their (delayed) launch of realtor.com.
Andrew la Fleur / June 16, 2008 at 11:45 am
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The Canadian Real Estate industry has been doing its best for the past several years to avoid anything related to Web 2.0 like it was a bad cold-and as you can see from the housing123 example, they have been very effective at doing so!

Good news is on the horizon though, as MLS.ca is about to be rebranded and relaunched as REALTOR.ca and the new site will include some 'Web 2.0' features including, I'm told, a mapping feature using Microsoft MapPoint.

I am hopeful that things are moving more in the direction of what is available to consumers in the U.S. where they have dozens of excellent online tools that utilize information from the MLS database. With any luck, REALTOR.ca will closely resemble REALTOR.com which blows the current incarnation of MLS.ca out of the water in terms of functionality and access to usable information.

The new REALTOR.ca site launches July 2 and eventually the MLS.ca domain will be phased out entirely.
Tom / June 16, 2008 at 12:10 pm
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Like any industry...when a company has a monopoly on the business there is little incentive to change and improve. Real Estate agents what a ripe off...
Ryan L. / June 16, 2008 at 12:57 pm
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I've heard some sleezy stories from a Real Estate agent themselves. One common tactic relies on promoting the "rule of thumb" that for every bidder, you should add $10,000 to the asking price of the house if you hope to have any chance. Not only is that rule of thumb a great way to bump the price of a house up significantly (and therefore the realtor's profits), but they often mislead the buyers into thinking there are more serious bidders than there actually are.

This not only is unethical, but ends up driving up the cost of the housing market as a whole.

People, parinoid that they'll miss an opportunity in the booming housing market (made worse if someone's already missed a few chances), will not only add the 10,000 per bidder (real bidder or otherwise), but then proceed to add as much as they can afford to on top of that to ensure they get the house.

Spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars more on a house than they needed to.
Nico / June 16, 2008 at 03:47 pm
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What a shame. Housing123 was such a breath of fresh air and made it easy to find a home in the neighbourhood I wanted. Monopoly wins again. :(
Johnnyrock / June 16, 2008 at 04:01 pm
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Wow. MLS.ca is indeed a horrid site.

BUT, be careful what you wish for when it comes to hoping that the new site is as "good" as Realtor.com.

Realtor.com is the bastard son of an unholy alliance between The US National Assoc of Realtors and a private company called Move Inc. Under this *wonderful* deal, Move has been granted free access to the NAR affiliated MLSs in the US, which is almost all of them. THEN Move Inc turns around and sells the brokers and agents WHO PROVIDE THE DATA "preferred placement" on Realtor.com.

Now think that one through: THe NAR did a deal that enables a orivet, 3rd party company to blackmail Brokers and Agents using the data those same brokers and agents generated.

Oh, and did I mention the site sucks comapred to real Web 2.0 sites like Trulia.com? Since Move Inc wants the amount of the blackmail to determine what listings you see, there is no search engine where you can use keywords to find what you want like Google, so there is no sense of relevance or accuracy. Think about it: If you could find what you want quickly and easily you would look at fewer pages. Fewer pages = fewer blackmail opportunities and fewer pages on which to plaster irrelevant display advertising.

So good luck with Realtor.ca -- hope you didn't follow the NAR's lead in the US.
Evan / June 16, 2008 at 04:18 pm
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I was a regular user of H123. It made MLS's not-so-retro-1990s site bearable. Housing 123 provided MLS with more traffic that it otherwise wouldn't have from people who couldn't be bothered to learn MLS's vexing interface.

When I look for a property on MLS, I immediately would like to see its location on a map and its relation to others. MLS has never provided this. Housing 123 provided an important shortcut MLS has been missing since 2006.

I also noticed that MLS has been touting a Microsoft-based map that was supposed to debut on May 28, 2008. The deadline that MLS set for itself was missed. Thus, the only change to the MLS site was that the banners advertising this "new" feature were hastily removed after May 28th. I was waiting to see if I could start using your site exclusively, but I guess I'll have to hold my breathe now that CREA & MLS have failed to deliver AND killed a free site offering the service-as-a-gateway-to-MLS that is sought by everyone my age who is looking for Canadian property. There has been no mention of a subsequent date that your site will join the dozens of other mashups like:

http://www.programmableweb.com/tag/realestate

or

http://www.trulia.com/

I see that a real estate agent above posits a new July 2nd date for the launch of Realtor.ca. Sure.

Going forward, people will only use MLS because they have a lock on the data; Primarily because they are not actually helpful or useful, because MLS actively tries not to be helpful. MLS has become a digital tyrant, capitalizing on the facts that 1) there is not enough money to be made fighting a false data monopoly and 2) Canadians are too complacent about net neutrality. Canada MLS needs to get over its fear of technological change (which occurred over 2 years ago everywhere else) and embrace innovation and helpers like H123, or they will find themselves reviled. If MLS shows no mercy to those that help, heaven help MLS when there is a paradigm shift, because no one will have sympathy for a deposed tyrant. No one will help MLS innovate to accommodate these technological changes, since they have set a nasty precedent of attacking helpers.
Disparishun / June 16, 2008 at 05:25 pm
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Cross-posted to Housing123:

I wonder whether MLS would not make more money -- and better meet its mandate -- by selling API access to its data monopoly, rather than trying to leverage its data monopoly into an interface monopoly, too.

It would be really interesting to read an interview with MLS's digital strategy folks, or whoever carries that file there, to get their take on that kind of shift.
omnivore / June 16, 2008 at 08:29 pm
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I'm a real estate agent, but I also spent more than a decade developing web sites, building backend information services, something I still do in a Web 2 context, using Rails and Ajax - just to give a sense of where in the chain of developers I am.

I agree with the statements that the existing real estate industry is a backwards dinosaur. I also think that OREA, the TREB (Toronto Real Estate Board) and the rest are digging their own graves. I'm acutely aware that what the current site(s) offer is on another planet from the one that Facebookers and their ilk live on.

This is not the first decision that has been made, in and out of the courts that is a sign that the real estate industry is prepared to alienate their next generation of customers in the interests of immediate victories. RealtySellers also got hit, and shut down, and the crux of the judges decision is revealing: essentially, they were prevented from doing some of what housing123 were doing, because they did not have offices, desks, a physical location. The judgement is here:

http://canlii.org/eliisa/highlight.do?text=mls&;language=en&searchTitle=Search+all+CanLII+Databases&path=/en/on/onsc/doc/2007/2007canlii50283/2007canlii50283.html

Now, ask yourself, where are we if a company is not seen as a legitimate operating entity because it is, essentially, virtual (section 14)? This is a problem of the courts, not of the MLS or TREB per se. The judge acknowledges that RealtySellers was using the material that they are allowed to distribute, but the decision went against them basically because of the 'virtuality' of their operation. Bricks win!!!

The reality from where I sit is that the attitude that OREA, CREA and TREB take is unlikely to get much resistance from within: most real estate agents are older, did not grow up with the technology, and have not seen an example of its utility that they can relate to their own experience as agents. There are, as far as I can see, on advocates for Web 2 within the existing power structure.

That said, the organized real estate industry does have some very legitimate points to make. The most credible of these is not proprietary information: virtually everything on the MLS exists in public records, notably the land registry, where prices, lot sizes, etc are all available.

The real point is the privacy one. Regulations exist that allow a seller of a house to decide whether or not they are prepared to have their listing, and in particular its address made public. There are good reasons for this. A person who is afraid of being traced by another party -- an ex spouse for instance -- ought to able to have their wishes followed. The whole point of being an agent, after all, is that you are acting on behalf of your client, ie you are required to act in their interest and on their instructions. If by listing your home you cannot have your privacy respected, MLS and organized real estate are right in saying that the credibility of their service will be eroded.

The problem with that stand is that MLS does very little, basically nothing, to actually protect that privacy. this is what realty sellers exploited. While you may have instructed your brokerage not to publicize your address, if housing 123 ignores that request, then the point is moot, much like protecting your PC from viruses that harvest your email is useless if your friends unprotected computer provides the same info. As an agent, I'm free to send you information that you can redistribute -- you have no contract with me, or the MLS -- against the original wishes. and from their point of view, housing 123 and RealtySellers in are doing this on an industrial scale.

I know this is long, but I will continue a little longer. From my point, the comments against agents are stinging, because this issue of information monopoly pits me against my potential clients. The irony is that the way the MLS sets it up, they make agents into purveyors of information that, from the point of view of many is artificially withheld to artificially raise the value of the agent. The problem there is that my primary value is not as a librarian, but as a negotiator. When I deliver value to my clients, it's not (just) because I looked up past sales on the MLS, but because I protected their interests in a negotiation, and knew what pitfalls that real estate sales have to watch for. By focussing the public and agents' attention on the information services, they make it harder to communicate what I do that justifies the commissions I earn.

The next wave is clearly going to be a P2P style mutual sharing with anonymous contributions by users, which the industry will have much less success thwarting. But the privacy issues will remain, and I don't see housing 123 as a victim in that regard.
theonlysandman / June 16, 2008 at 11:31 pm
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The biggest problem I see with house hunting isn't MLS (but I do admit MLS is bad). It is how hard it is to get
neighbourhood information... that is why I launched:
http://www.homezilla.ca/ a one-stop shop for neighbourhood information.

We are going near MLS but we do want to make it faster
for people to buy a home! (sorry for the shameless plug)
Rob / June 17, 2008 at 08:49 am
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Actually Copyright violation does not work in this case because a house listing does not fall under a "creative" work and trademarks would be easy to remove... Is there a Pro Bono Lawyer out there that can send out a reply.. I had someone send a similar letter to me a few years back for a yellow pages directory site that I ran.. I did research and sent back the facts and never heard from them again.. basically you cannot copyright streat addresses or housing prices or even the description.. and if there where copyrighted it would be to the agent not the mls.ca. scrapping is legal or else google would be out of business so I do not see how they can really have a case...
Jason / June 17, 2008 at 04:20 pm
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Legal or not, banning Housing123 would be easy since presumably they only have a few machines doing the scraping of listings and it would be trivial to simply ban those IPs. If the Housing123 guys wrote an application that hundreds or thousands of people could install and collectively scrape the MLS data, then we start to get closer to this p2p setup that omnivore mentioned. (And MLS can't ban anyone since it all the traffic appears similar to their intended use.) Once you add in data from the other forsalebyowners, then you have a much more useful database than MLS.
Serge / June 17, 2008 at 05:25 pm
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<i>Actually Copyright violation does not work in this case because a house listing does not fall under a "creative" work </i>

Actually copyright violation in this case has to do with a database, not each discrete datum within the database.
Frankie / June 18, 2008 at 12:42 am
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It would be an interesting legal case, given that things like telephone directories are considered to _not_ be copyrightable, since they are a listing of facts without any real degree of creativity.

I believe the relevant legal court rulings (in Canada anyway), are located here: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_Publications_v._Rural_Telephone_Service#Other_countries";>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_Publications_v._Rural_Telephone_Service#Other_countries<;/a>

So I'd imagine that merely plotting the addresses which are available on a map, and perhaps their prices, might be fine, but pictures and descriptions may not be fair game.

Perhaps someone could make a greasemonkey script to convert REALTOR'S UPPER-CASE LISTING DESCRIPTIONS INTO READABLE ENGLISH?
Jermaine / June 18, 2008 at 05:48 am
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The same thing happened to realestateplus.ca - this was backed by Bell Canada with a resolve to take it all the way. That never happened. You think these guys would wake up with the recent ruling down south opening things up.
Marc Novakowski / June 20, 2008 at 02:14 pm
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For anyone using Firefox, I just posted a Greasemonkey script called "MLS.ca Extras" which does two things:

1) Turns the listing's address into a google map link (which itself includes the MLS number and price for handy bookmarking)
2) Replaces the "More.." button with the remaining images (including links to their large size)

I've been using this just for my own purposes but after hearing about the closing of Housing 123 I decided to post it so that others may use it.

http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/28825

NOTE: you will need the greasemonkey Firefox plugin installed before this will work. You can get it here:

http://www.greasespot.net/
Andy / June 20, 2008 at 03:21 pm
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mls is so poor they should be thankful for sites like these - anything to take the limelight away from their dreadful site.

Maybe they should employ these guys or buy the site. It wont be long until someone comes up with another solution
dnm / June 21, 2008 at 12:33 am
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I, too, had the same idea, and had started developing a mls.ca type replacement program, but after having some meetings with some Real Estate agents, decided against it because the CREA are a bunch of raving lunatics.

What's funniest about that letter is the, "CREA went to great expense" nonsense. If they actually paid for that heap of crap website, then they got horribly ripped off.
john holmes' ghost replying to a comment from jonson roth / December 17, 2008 at 11:49 am
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Do not be confused about the facts here. MLS represents the Realtors and Brokerages. There is a purpose to that lack of user capability...MLS's function is for you to call the brokerage/realtor...that is what the site (MLS) is for. It is an advertising tool for Brokers. Not a home buying tool for the public. Once the buyer calls the brokerage/agent that buyer has identified his/her self as a potential buyer...



So what if two of the three bedrooms are in the basement...you are an opportunity for the Brokerage/agent on another sale...does this sound too much like bait and switch....that's usually what happens when you call a Realtor about a print ad that you saw...the "oh no, sorry, that one is sold, broken, located in Ohio" or some other BS..."but I got a another one you would probably love!"

Here's a game to play...ever seen the same property posted twice by two different Realtors in a popular resale homes advertisment publication? Which one is the agent for the listing...which one repreesents the seller...the fact is...neither of them may be the listing agent...Why...Realtors can and do "share properties" for advertising to draw in buyers.
lilia / February 16, 2011 at 11:30 am
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I'm always saddened to see another agency close. The real estate market is just starting to look up in <a href="http://www.sequim-real-estate-blog.com";>Sequim</a>, hopefully people will hold out.

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