Is it free or stealing? When I was a kid the answer to this question was very obvious, if it belonged to you and you took something it wasn’t stealing. An example would be picking apples off the limbs of a tree in your back yard. If it belongs to somebody else and you took something it was stealing. An example would be picking apples off the limbs of a tree in your neighbor’s back yard. If it was marketed for free than it was indeed free. An example would be your neighbor’s apple tree having such a bumper crop that he put a sign in his front yard, “Apples – free for the picking”. However, today with the advent of the Internet the question of what is free has become less clear. Because the objects of our desire are not tangible and only exist in cyberspace it becomes harder to determine if it is free or stealing.
Over the last several years providers of digital media have begun to educate us on what is free and what is stealing. We now know that copying music and movies to share with friends, even though we may have purchased the CD or DVD is stealing. While we have a right to enjoy the CD or DVD we didn’t purchase the right to make copies and give to others. They must pay, just as we did, for the right to enjoy the digital media. Similarly, the developers of computer software have tried to educate us that their digital media is not free but this area is a little less clear since there also exists “shareware” and “free downloads”.
With the advent of social media the lines have become further blurred as we upload movies to You Tube and post photos and other content to Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn and other social and networking web sites. Who does this digital media belong to? The person who posted it, the web site owner or is it now public domain? The answer isn’t clear and I’m sure this topic will end up before a judge at some point.
Regardless of what side of the debate we are positioned when discussing whether digital media is free or stealing there is one clarifying factor. Did it require someone to expend resources, either money, time or both in the production of the digital media? If so, it belongs to them and we should pay for it if we want to use it.
How is this topic relevant to a real estate blog? Very much so, as real estate agents make their living doing research on the real estate market and providing real estate services to the general public. When we access a real estate web site and search for a property we are using the research that a real estate agent has complied and posted on the web site. The information is there for our convenience but the unspoken agreement is that if we find something of interest we will contact the agent and request their help in finalizing the transaction. It is so easy to take this information and go direct to the property owner with the perception that we can save money not involving another party to the transaction. Is that not stealing? Didn’t we take the research of some real estate agent who invested both time and money to generate the information and use it for our own benefit without paying for it?
As an owner of a real estate brokerage firm I get calls from people all the time who would like me to provide them with a list of properties that meet their criteria so they can drive by them to view. The impression they give is that once they see a property they like I will get a call from them to help with the transaction. When I first got into the real estate business I would take these individuals at their word only to find out later when I hadn’t heard back from them and they refused to return my calls that they used the information I provided them with to acquire a property. By using my research and not allowing me the opportunity to represent them in the acquisition I wasn’t able to earn a commission. My research was used for somebody else’s benefit and I wasn’t paid. Is that not stealing?
Of course, today I’m older and wiser and I don’t allow this type of thing to happen to me or my agents, but it doesn’t stop people from calling. They request a competitive market evaluation with the impression that they want us to list their property while in reality they want the information so that they can than go to the county assessor and provide proof as to why their property value and thus property taxes should be low. They call wanting to know what property in the area is leasing for giving the impression that they would like to engage with my firm in a contract to lease space only to place a sign in the window, “For Lease by Owner”, a few days later.
Just because information is made available to you it doesn’t mean it’s free. If someone had to expend time and money and we were able to save time and money by using that information we should be willing to pay for it.