Pirates of the Internet

May 2, 2002

Homestore lawsuit accuses Bargain Network of scraping, reselling Realtor.com data

Inman News Features

A new lawsuit in the real estate dot-com space might not rise to the level of Napster?s infamous legal battle with the music industry, but the case in which Homestore.com accuses Bargain Network of using automated querying programs to misappropriate Realtor.com listings information has all the hallmarks of a fascinating legal debate over what is and isn?t legal in cyberspace.

In a 35-page complaint, a copy of which was obtained yesterday by Inman News, Homestore alleges that Bargain Network, operator of the Bargain.com Web site, has been employing robots, spiders, intelligent agents and the like to access and repackage listing information copied, or "scraped," from Realtor.com and using deep linking technologies to bypass Realtor.com while selling access to Realtor.com?s content through Bargain.com to Internet users.

The complaint charges that Bargain Network?s querying programs access Realtor.com "thousands of times a day" and that Bargain Networks methods of displaying scraped data interfere with Homestore?s ability to control the presentation of that data and display sponsors? links, advertisements, gift, coupon and promotional offerings and opportunities to request assistance from local real estate brokers. The complaint also alleges that Bargain.com?s bypassing Realtor.com deprives Homestore of opportunities to collect demographic information from Internet users and potentially jeopardizes Homestore?s contractual relationships with its content providers, business allies, sponsors, advertisers and customers.

The causes of action alleged in the complaint are customarily both broad and numerous. The complaint states that Bargain Network?s "unscrupulous activities constitute trespass to chattels, computer fraud and abuse, false advertising, breach of contract, unfair competition, tortious interference with contractual relations, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, misappropriation and conversion." Whether all, some or none of those causes will prove actionable in the judicial system will be for the California district court where the lawsuit was filed to decide.

Homestore?s complaint also charges Bargain Network with violating the terms of use posted on Homestore?s Web site. Those provisions expressly prohibit users from using automated querying programs to scrape data from Realtor.com and other Homestore cyberspace properties.

Those types of prohibitions on reuse of Web site data aren?t unusual. In fact, Bargain.com?s terms of use also contain similar admonitions: "

Homestore?s complaint also mentions that Realtor.com pays substantial sums of money to obtain its listings data, pays royalty fees to a National Association of Realtors subsidiary for use of the Realtor.com domain name and does not charge Internet users for access to Realtor.com.

Bargain Network charges a one-time initial "shipping and handling" charge of $1.95 (online signup) or $8.95 (telephone signup) for printed membership materials (fee waived for "online membership"), then $8.95 monthly after a free introductory 30-day membership. The member?s credit card is charged automatically each month unless the member proactively cancels the membership.

Goleta, Calif.-based Bargain Network and its owners and executives remain a mystery, in part because the company?s Web site contains only scant corporate information. The "Company Contact" page offers one general information "800" telephone number and some anonymous e-mail addresses, and the "About Us" page offers essentially the same marketing information found elsewhere on the Web site.

Repeated calls to the company were answered by a receptionist who was unaware of the legal action and bewildered by requests for an interview. No one from the company was available to comment.

A Homestore spokesperson said the company cannot comment on the dispute because it is a matter in litigation.

Copyright: Inman News Service

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