As reported by the Washington Post, an interesting intellectual property dispute is brewing in the real estate appraisal business. On one side are traditional real estate appraisers, who charge several hundred dollars for an appraisal that typically involves an onsite inspection. On the other side are online appraisal services that, relying on their databases and some algorithms, offer lenders an instantaneous appraisal at a small fraction of the cost.
The traditional appraisers are upset because the online services may be extracting information from their appraisals and using that information to improve their databases (and thus the accuracy of their online appraisals). Taken to its logical extreme, as online appraisers get better databases by capturing data from the traditional appraisers’ inspections, traditional appraisers will destroy their own industry.
Not surprisingly, the traditional appraisers are looking for ways to preserve their market niche, and intellectual property doctrines can be great tools to hinder marketplace competition. So the WaPo article mentions that the traditional appraisers are considering their copyrights in their appraisals. After all, traditional appraisers put in their sweat of the brow, so shouldn’t they be rewarded? (The article provides some good quotes reflecting this paradigm).
We know how this argument goes. Copyright doesn’t protect the labor invested to generate facts. Appraisers probably can copyright the report in its entirety, and they may even be able to copyright their specific price estimate (see, e.g., CDN v. Kapes), but there should be no way for appraisers or anyone else to obtain copyright protection for a home’s basic specifications (e.g., square footage, age, number of rooms). As a result, copyright law does not provide appraisers with any effective way to restrict online databases from extracting facts from their reports. Thus, if traditional appraisers are looking for a tool to restrict competition from online factual databases, copyright law may not be very helpful.
Even if copyright law isn’t availing, traditional appraisers have other tools at their disposal, including:
* providing services that online database providers can’t, such as the increased accuracy associated with the onsite inspections.
* restricting access to the appraisals. Right now, it appears that the biggest online database service gets some data by providing an online tool for appraisers to submit their reports to lenders—thus, allowing them to extract facts from appraisals that cross the network. Traditional appraisers could try to discourage lenders from using this delivery service, thereby making it harder or impossible for the online service to see the appraisals. Alternatively, if they keep using this delivery service, traditional appraisers could negotiate a contract that limits the service’s ability to extract facts. (The contract is probably some standardized click-through agreement, but it’s negotiable in theory).
* if traditional appraisers really think they are losing money, they could just increase their fees to lenders to cover the lost value (good luck!).
But despite these options, the long-term prognosis may not be very good. A good appraisal always will need an onsite inspection, but just about every other aspect of the appraisal business can be replicated or eliminated through online mechanisms. Thus, it could be that the Internet is disintermediating the appraisal industry, and no amount of rear-guard intellectual property saber-rattling will change that fact.