Craigslist sues apartment search site PadMapper over listings

Predator

(Updated 6:00pm with 3Taps response)

Craigslist has followed up on earlier threats and filed a lawsuit against popular apartment listing site PadMapper. The case raises questions over whether Craigslist is stifling innovation or simply protecting its data.

In a complaint filed in San Francisco, Craigslist is accusing PadMapper and “one stop data shop” 3taps of a slew of infractions, including copyright and trademark violations, and is demanding the court issue a preliminary injunction to stop them from using its listings.

PadMapper, the site at the center of the dispute, is popular because of a modern interface that lets apartment hunters see a variety of potential places on a single map (see screenshot at right for an example).  Much of its data, however, is drawn from Craigslist listings. After receiving a cease and desist letter from Craigslist in June, PadMapper agreed to take the listings down.

PadMapper soon put the listings back up again, however, after owner Eric DeMenthon declared in a blog post that he had found a “legally kosher way” to do so. The legal dodge was based on the fact that PadMapper is now obtaining the data from 3taps, a company that “scrapes” data from other websites (including Craigslist) rather than tapping into the data directly.

Update: Greg Kidd, CEO of 3taps, said by phone that his company doesn’t “scrape” Craigslist but simply draws on data available on the public internet in the same way that other search engines do. He added that Craigslist may control access to data but that it doesn’t own facts expressed by that data — such as the fact that a house is for sale.

Craigslist’s complaint, however, rejects PadMapper’s legal theory and accuses the two companies of “unlawfully and unabashedly mass-harvesting and redistributing postings entrusted by craigslist users to their local craigslist sites.” The company said it offered a license that would have allowed PadMapper to use its data on mobile applications but that the competitor did not accept the terms.

The lawsuit raises questions about who should be able to use the vast amount of user-created data hosted on a site like Craigslist.

On one hand, Craigslist argues it built the classifieds community and that sites like PadMapper are simply free-riding on its hard work. But on the other hand, users and developers are exasperated with Craigslist’s insistence on preserving an outdated interface and design. Here is how Molly McHugh of DigitalTrends described the Craigslist experience (emphasis ours):

The search tool is antiquated, the images are poor or nonexistent, locations of listings are hardly dependable, and you can forget about an integrated way to save anything for later reference. There is a litany of shortcomings that come with the Craigslist apartment search; they are many and they are painful … Craigslist. Your site is chock-full of data I need, but your interface is an exercise in torture. Either give me the tools to effectively use your site or allow someone else to do it.

Legal Toss-ups

McHugh makes a fair case that Craigslist is shortchanging consumers. But does it have a legal right to do so? Even though the company’s complaint swings for the fences with multi-barreled accusations, it’s not clear how many of them will hold up.

The copyright claim, for starters, may be tenuous because Craigslist doesn’t own the copyrights to the listings — those belong to the users who wrote them. While its terms of service may require users to give it exclusive rights to the listings, this does not mean Craigslist has a copyright claim against sites like PadMapper. Craigslist also claims to own things like its layout and “time stamps and unique craigslist user ID numbers” but its not clear if these type of claims qualify for protection in the first place.

Craigslist is also making trademark claims but these too are no slam dunk given that it will have to show consumer confusion to succeed. Its strongest claim may be against 3taps which is running a website called “craiggers.”

The complaint, posted below, also claims breach of contract, cyberpiracy and violations of California business laws.

In the bigger picture, the dispute between Craigslist and PadMapper could be an important test case of how courts will respond to such claims at a time when technology is making data-scraping ever easier. Is it possible to protect companies from unfair free-riding without also also depriving consumers of new innovation?

3taps’ Kidd, who is also an investor in Twitter, wrote by email: “We love Craigslist and I’ve got a lot of respect for Craig and the good work he’s done in many realms.  We want Craigslist to succeed.  But we also want to see innovators do great things with the public data (just as we do at Twitter).”

Craigslist v PadMapper
(Image by Mario Bono via Shutterstock)

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