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Using Unauthorized Digital Content is Just like Burning Money

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When a rental housing investor buys a property, many assets beyond the obvious fixtures and physical infrastructure come with the deal. When it comes to digital content, there is a financial risk property owners and managers need to consider before continuing use of such assets.

The seller typically relinquishes some or all intellectual property, such as designs and logos, associated with the property or brand. Usually included are the photos, images and videos on websites and other marketing collateral harbored in computers and devices.

But how can a buyer be assured that, within the transaction, the rights to those images are being transferred and actually owned by the seller? Even if the property isn’t being acquired, how can the owner or property manager know that all those convincing shots of the swimming pool, fitness room, interiors and exteriors are properly licensed?

And what is the risk if those images are published without authorization from the persons or entity that holds the copyright?

Potential for copyright, licensing infringement growing in multifamily

In today’s world of copy-and-paste internet uploads to websites, social media and other platforms, the potential for copyright infringement is more prevalent than ever before. Images, photos, video and other material can be found and posted to websites, social media accounts and other outlets in a heartbeat, often without the awareness of the licensing or copyright owner. It could be days, weeks or months before the owner realizes the work has been used without permission.

Copyright, trademarks and patents protect intellectual property created for the benefit of financial reward. Copyright typically applies to literary and artistic works, including photographs and descriptions that protect the creators and assigned publishers from others using images without authorization.

The potential for infringement in multifamily rests largely with, but isn’t limited to, photographs, videos, 3D renderings and other images. A property that uses protected intellectual property without authorization can be subject to copyright and licensing infringement.

Recent legal decisions levying large financial damages demonstrate the need to ensure that your digital assets are not infringing on the copyright of any assets.

“There are some changes happening in the real estate industry,” RealPage Vice President Sheena Pabari said “What we’re seeing is a number of copyright infringement cases being taking to court, and hefty fees and penalties being applied.”

Protecting against unauthorized use of intellectual property

Pabari and others say the only way for properties to protect against a lawsuit is to understand the law and who owns copyright or licensing. But deciphering laws and determining ownership of acquired visual assets can be difficult, especially for images that show no markings or metadata of origin.

Contracting with a third-party service that specializes in mitigating the risk of using copyrighted and licensed material can provide protection, Pabari says.

Recently, RealPage, through its PropertyPhotos product rolled out its Digital HealthCheck™ service that analyzes visual assets and intellectual property, from videos to still photographs to 3D drawings and renderings. The service helps identify any images at the property (computer files, etc.) and within a portfolio that may be risky to use. PropertyPhotos provides visual assets created by professional creatives for exclusive use by clients.

“What we’re trying to strive for is allowing the multifamily industry to understand where their content is being used and to understand who has rights to use it,” Pabari said. “Within PropertyPhotos, it’s easy to license the content, manage your existing content and put in requests to create new content.”

Being ‘proactive before it becomes a serious issue’

Erin Mitchell, a product manager who has been a professional photographer since 2000, says investors and owners often are at a disadvantage when purchasing a new property or portfolio because the source of visual collateral isn’t always known and may not be obvious.

While it may be impossible for the property company to assess every content asset, the Digital HealthCheck can look for obvious and not-so-obvious signs that a copyright or license could exist. The service also identifies content that could be considered offensive and put the owner or operator at risk.

The goal, Mitchell says, is to provide clients with a layer of protection and also elevate the level of visual assets that can be used in marketing properties through a quality review. The last thing a property needs is to have imagery that really isn’t that appealing in the first place and be unknowingly liable for a copyright or licensing infringement.

“We’re trying to look ahead and be proactive before it becomes a serious issue for our clients,” she said. “Owners and operators need to not only get the most impact of their digital assets but understand how to be protected against potential copyright and licensing issues.”

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