Words Matter: The Case Against "Listing Data"


Not that there’s anything truly new under the sun when it comes to the old warhorse topic of listing syndication, but… something did occur to me while wading through this nugget on Inman News’ Facebook Page.

Is it possible that so much of the discussion is confused because of the word “data”?

For example, Saul Klein of Poin2 writes:

It is time for the Industry to “take back its future.” It is time to look seriously at data rights and data licensing. It is not too late.

Whatever you might think of Sauls cri de coeur, what came to my mind was… we’re using the language of industries like music and retail to describe something that is fundamentally different, no?

For example, WalMart collects all sorts of data about its customers. It uses that data for massive analytics to make decisions that drive billions of dollars in sales. It protects that proprietary data in heavily fortified data centers, and it does not share the data with anybody (as far as I know). There are tons of companies whose business involves the collection of data, which they then sell to various customers.

Actual content companies — book publishers, music companies, Hollywood, etc. — create stuff that people will pay to read/hear/watch. I suppose a book is “data” in a sense, since it’s all digital bits and bytes living in the Cloud these days, and yeah, violating the copyright of a publisher is a no-no.

But when it comes to “listing data”, aren’t we talking about advertisements?

I mean, yes, just because something is an ad doesn’t mean copyright law doesn’t apply. Of course it does. I recognize that the brokers or the MLS or the photographer or whoever created the listing owns copyright, has data rights, can license those rights, and so on and so forth. There’s no legal difference between a listing and a retail point-of-sale data stream.

But isn’t there a practical difference?

“Listing data”, after all, is the advertisement of a property for sale. The broker owns the copyrightable parts of it, yes, but… should we completely ignore the fact that if the property were not for sale, the actual sellers would never have consented to the creation of the “listing data package” in the first place? As far as the seller is concerned, the “listing data” exists for the sole purpose of selling his damn house.

Which means that the issue of “listing data rights” and “listing data licensing” ought to be rephrased as “advertisements of homes for sale rights” and “advertisements of homes for sale licensing” for the purpose of precision. If those more precise terms sound faintly ridiculous… there’s probably a reason for that.

When I think in those terms, the whole syndication thing isn’t about data rights or data licensing at all, but about effective and ineffective advertising. If channel X or method Y is effective advertising, helping the seller achieve the purpose for which the “listing data” was created in the first place (i.e., sell the house), then… well, what is the problem here? If channel Z or method Q is ineffective, then  by all means, stop.

The listing agent or broker can explain to the seller why she chose not to use XYZ website or method. As long as the seller is cool with it, all is good.

Consider this:

Seller: “Hey, I really want you to send singing telegrams about my house.”

Agent: “Yeah, that’s like a really great idea, said nobody ever, and I would never waste time and money on something so stupid.”

Seller: “Oh, okay, sorry. You’re the expert.”


Seller: “Hey, I really want you to send singing telegrams about my house.”

Agent: “Well, I don’t want to have singing telegram companies making money off of my listing data, and they haven’t executed the proper listing data license with me.”

Seller: “What the hell are you talking about?”

When I consider the fact that “listing data” is actually an advertisement of a property for sale, created by people who are supposedly fiduciaries of the seller, who were given the right to create that “data” for the sole purpose of effecting the sale of the seller’s property, the whole notion of “data licensing” starts to smell.

The whole “I can’t stand that Zillow is making money off my listing” thing is… sort of incomprehensible. The seller didn’t allow you to list his home so that you can generate a bunch of leads or worry about which advertising companies are making money and how. He allowed you to list his home — and to create the advertising “data” about it — so you can sell his home quickly and efficiently.

So once again, I return to my original advice on the topic:

  • Pay ‘em: Go negotiate a deal with the aggregators that is mutually satisfactory; or,
  • Pull ‘em: Go pull your listings from sites you don’t like; or,
  • Zip ‘em: Recognize you’re getting free stuff and #quityerbitchin.

If you don’t like using singing telegrams, don’t use it to advertise the listing. If you don’t like printing gorgeous 4-color books, don’t do it. If you don’t like doing open houses, by all means, don’t do them. And if If you don’t like ZTR, don’t advertise there.

Why so complicated? It could be because of the terminology: “listing data”.

Confusion arises from imprecision. Words matter.


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