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Zillow to pay $2 million for copyright infringement

An appeals court upheld a lower court decision ordering Zillow to pay damages to photography company VHT Studios

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling ordering Zillow to pay VHT Studios, a real estate photography company, roughly $2 million in damages for copyright infringement, after Zillow displayed thousands of VHT’s photos on its website.

This will be the final ruling in the legal battle, which began over eight years ago, unless the parties decide to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Originally filed in July 2015, the lawsuit alleges that Zillow took VHT’s intellectual property by illegal using its photos on Zillow’s home improvement website, Zillow Digs. When the lawsuit was initially filed, VHT said over 75,000 of its photos were on the Zillow Digs webpage.

According to the complaint, VHT, with the exception of one brokerage, licenses the photos taken by the firm’s photographers on its behalf, to listing agents, brokers, or companies representing the property, solely for marketing the specific pictured property and only for the time the property is on the market. During and after this licensing period, VHT retains the copyright for the images.

In this latest verdict, a panel of three judges rejected arguments from both Zillow and VHT in regards to various aspects of their ongoing legal battle.

Zillow presented two main arguments to the appeals court, the first being that VHT had not satisfied copyright registration requirements and that the statute of limitations for registration had passed, which Zillow believed should dismiss VHT’s claims. The court disagreed with this argument on the ground that under copyright law, copyright protection begins as soon as a work is created and not when it is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Zillow’s second argument was that the photos should be considered as part of one work and not individual works, but the court stated in its ruling that since VHT licensed the individual photos in the database and not the database of photos itself, each photo was a separate work.

VHT, on the other hand only had one argument for the court, asking that the appeals court find that the lower court did not have the authority to conduct a new trial to decide statutory damages. The appeals court rejected this argument.

Roughly two years after the lawsuits initial July 2015 filing, a jury ordered Zillow to pay more than $8 million in damages to VHT for copyright infringement. However, later in 2017, Zillow convinced a federal court to cut that amount to just over $4 million.

A year later, in 2018, appeals from both parties sent the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After mostly siding with Zillow, in its March 2019 ruling, the appeals court sent the case back to a lower-court judge to come up with a new monetary amount for damages.

In May 2020, VHT argued in front of the lower court that the previous damages should stand, while Zillow asked that the court either find its infringements innocent as a matter of law or order a new trial to decide on damages for the 2,700 images. Again, the court ruled mostly in favor of Zillow and a new trial was ordered.

The new trial, held in March 2021, resulted in VHT being awarded a total of $1.927 million in damages on top of the damages previously awarded in the 2017 trial.

Requests for comment sent to both Zillow and VHT had not been returned by the time of publication.