Marc Rasmussen vs. Sarasota Association of Realtors over thesarasotamls.com

Posted by Marc Rasmussen on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 4:10pm.

If you saw the business section today in the Sarasota Herald Tribune you may have noticed the article about my fight with the Sarasota Association of Realtors over the domain name thesarasotamls.com. You can read the article here.

I never contacted Aaron Kessler, the reporter who wrote the story, about putting it in the story. He called me two weeks ago because he heard the buzz that was spreading across the internet like wildfire. The buzz started when Morgan Carey of RealEstateWebmasters.com wrote a blog post about my predicament - Sarasota Association of Realtors Domain Theft - Fight SAR MLS Support Our Members. This started the amazing support that I have received over the last 2 weeks. So far the blog post has been read 6,330 times by 4,165 visitors.

The support has been absolutely overwhelming. People from all over the country have called, emailed and written about my fight. I want to thank everyone that has contributed money or has supported me in this cause. Just to name a few - Morgan, Cal, Eric, Ryan, John, Joe and Colleen, Knox, Mert, Hector, Judy, Amy, Jeff, John, Mikey, Richard, Drew, Dennis, Brian, Carolyn, Jay, Kevin, Wayne, Eric, Julia, Vicki, Justin, Mike, Kevin, Jennifer, Justin, Bob, Paul, Jim, Calum, Gregg, Jennifer, Gary, Lou, Ryan, Paul, Tony, Ken, Mike, James, Chris, Steve, Jon, Jacqulyn, Jerry, Dorris, Derek, Paul, Alan, Joanne. These names are in no particular order and do apologize if I have missed anyone. Again, the support has been awesome! If there is anything that I can do for any of you don't hesitate to ask.

I think I have read just about every blog out there about this. I am not sure as there are so many of them. I have seen some inconsistencies so I wanted to clarify the facts in a timeline:

3/1/2002 – Mr. Internet, Michael Russer, publishes an article in Realtor magazine giving advice to Realtors about choosing a domain name. One of his suggestions is [location]mls.com. Realtor magazine is owned and published by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Regardless of the disclaimer at the bottom of the article the practice of buying domain names with MLS in them is considered to be in good faith in 2002.
 
August 2003– I buy the domain name thesarasotamls.com. Prior to buying this domain name I call the Florida Association of Realtors (FAR) legal hotline as well as the NAR to ask if there is anything wrong with the domain name. Both of them stated that there is no rule against the domain name. Unfortunately, I did not get them to state that in writing.

 

Summer of 2006 - I receive a letter from the Sarasota Association of Realtors asking me to shut down my website. I meet with Kathy Roberts, the CEO of Sarasota Association of Realtors, in person to discuss alternative options. Supposedly SAR received an anonymous email from someone complaining about my domain name. Kathy Roberts could not produce the email. She says that she is going to contact NAR to discuss the issue and get back to me. I never hear back from Kathy. 

They wrote letters to 28 other Realtors in Sarasota who had MLS in their domain name.  

Summer of 2007 - I receive a stronger letter from SAR stating that if I don’t take my website down that they were going to take further action. 

The other 28 Realtors took down their websites. I spoke with several of them. Every Realtor I spoke with felt it was wrong what SAR was doing. They made the business decision to shut down their website because they did not make enough money from the site to justify the fight and aggravation.  

April 2008 - Possible ethics hearing - No comment. 

July 2008 - the SAR board of directors decide to pursue this issue further. My previous broker called Kathy Roberts at SAR to get documentation of any complaints about my website received by SAR. To this day they have provided no proof of any complaints.

July 30, 2008  - According to SunBiz.org, the SAR filed a trademark registration with the State of Florida.

August 27, 2008 - I lost the ICANN case to what I believe to be poor legal representation.

There was dissent in the arbitration decision:

This Panelist is not convinced that Complainant established common law trademark rights prior to the registration of the domain.  None of Complainant’s historical exhibits showed a specific intention of using the term in a trademark sense; the term was used interchangeably as both a noun and adjective and never included any trademark symbol.  Symbols are not, of course, required, however Complainant had faithfully applied the symbol to its Sarasota Association of Realtors trademarks where they appeared in the same Exhibits.  My conclusion from the Exhibits is that Complainant used the term as the descriptive name of its database and gave no thought to any trademark status until Respondent and other realtors began using MLS in domain names.  I find insufficient evidence of trademark rights.
 
In addition, Respondent submitted evidence that a major trade association publication advised local realtors to include the term “MLS” in their domain registration specifically to drive traffic to their sites; while the trade association may since have changed its opinion about that matter, the fact remains that Respondent had a reasonable basis for relying on the recommendation at the time when the domain was registered.
 
Lastly, the trade group’s ethics panel declined to censure Respondent for this domain registration.  Whether or not Respondent had any right to present the ethics decision in this case is a matter for the ethics panel to determine, but use of the decision here does nothing to prove that Respondent had any bad faith intention at the time the domain was registered.  I do not find the ethics opinion dispositive, but only one more link in the chain of evidence that Respondent believed he had a legitimate right to do as he did when he registered the domain.  Complainant’s remedy against bad faith use is under US law for which an action may be brought without regard to the domain registrant’s good faith at the time of registration.  The UDRP, however, requires that both registration and use be in bad faith.  I find no evidence of bad faith registration.

 

September 2008 Sarasota Association of Realtors joined the Mid-Florida MLS. There is no longer a central database of properties for sale referred to as the Sarasota MLS. 

 
I hired a new attorney that filed a lawsuit in Virginia Eastern District Court. I redirected thesarasotamls.com to Sarasota real estate.

 

October 2008 - Network Solutions transfers thesarasotamls.com to SAR and they immediately use a 301 redirect to their website. 
 
I hope this timeline helps. It is also important to note that in 5 years of owning the domain and hundreds of thousands of visitors I have not received one complaint from any visitors and SAR cannot produce one documented complaint from anyone.
 
Ironically, while I was writing this post I received a phone call from Dick Plumb. He is a Realtor in Sarasota and was 1 of the 28 Realtors who was asked to shut his site down. He saw the article in the newspaper today and left a very encouraging message and supports me 100%. 
 
I have been contacted by several local Realtors telling me to stay in the fight. Many of them are very upset that SAR is spending the members money on this. One of them asked:
 
"Who is paying for all the legal fees
 
I do not have access to any concrete numbers, but the legal fees on both sides of this dispute are mounting. The SAR is using revenue from more than 3000 member's dues to pay for its legal fees."

 

Let me know how you feel about it. Tell me if I am right or wrong and why. Write a comment, shoot me an email or call me at 941-812-6272. I would be interesting to hear what other Sarasota Realtors, Realtors around the country or anyone from the general public thinks of this.

If you think this is a crock and want to be heard, please email the Board of Directors of SAR. Here is the contact information for the board of directors - http://sarasotarealtors.com/about/directors.cfm

I think it is time to tell these Associations that they work for their members. Not the other way around.

20 Responses to "Marc Rasmussen vs. Sarasota Association of Realtors over thesarasotamls.com"

Jay Thompson wrote: Marc - you keep on fighting! The SAR Board should be *ashamed* of what they are doing.

It's not just SAR members that should be frightened by this. Any other association out there could pull something equally offensive.

It's so sad as a simple 301 redirect from your old domain to the new one should have been all that it took.

Many, MANY agents (and apparently Association boards) don't grasp the technical aspects of this case.

What SAR has done is a travesty. Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 8:01pm.
Dennis Pease wrote: Marc, you know you have a lot of friends backing you on this. As Jay mentioned, allowing you to just 301 redirect the old domain to your new site should have satisfied them, but what is obvious to me is SAR wants all the links and rankings you worked so hard to get. What these people need to understand is that none of those rankings are from your use of MLS in the domain name. That is a Myth.

When Cherry said this: "Cherry said the association's position is that even if Web users know once they reach Rasmussen's site that it is not actually SAR, or even if it is redirected to his new site, by that point the damage has been done, as the "initial confusion" caused would still hurt SAR's business."

What business? They want your business for what reasons other than the personal envy & greed by Association Officers and Directors? IMO this calls their ethics into question. Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 9:26pm.
John wrote: Hey Marc:
Glad to help. Keep on fighting. Our associations are only in existence because of the membership and they shouldn't take that lightly. I think the membership there should be outraged. Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 9:26pm.
Sandy wrote: Hi Mark,

I read about this in the newspaper yesterday. I live in Sarasota but am not a realtor. I think the realtor board should be ashamed of themselves for what they are doing. You are right and they are wrong. Keep fighting. Good luck. Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 7:33am.
Jes Ellis wrote: Thanks for listing this out for all of us. I read "their" version on a site somewhere and they left out some key elements, that's for sure. Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 10:52am.
Mark wrote: I think SAR sucks! I am a Realtor in Sarasota and am very unhappy with many of the decisions of Kathy Roberts and the Board of Directors. They should all be replaced!

In my mind they stole your domain name! Plain and simple. Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 10:56am.
Cal wrote: Marc,
Thanks for the additional info on the timeline. Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 8:34am.
Brian Mc wrote: It makes me sick and certainly everyone can see that the people who stole all of your hard work have something to gain by trying to damage your search engine placements. The fact that they wouldn't let you redirect the domain name shows their true intent.

Sorry I have been busy but you can bet there will be another blog post (or two) about this soon, SAR wants to play SEO, lets see how many results we can get. Keep fighting the good fight Marc. Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 8:34am.
Hojin Chang wrote: The people at SAR are retarded. Keep fighting those son of a guns. You can't let them get away with this. Posted on Wednesday, October 29th, 2008 at 7:12pm.
Joel Beasley wrote: I rarely come out of my shell to say anything but i'm a very active programmer / seo company owner.

Marc, I have followed you for a very long time and I check up on your site quarterly. I felt so strongly against this insane decision for the ownership to be transferred that I just had to post letting you know I support you in any way possible. I think this is a joke. Personally I would like to see you intentionally rank #1 for Sarasota Realtors I have over 15 sites with amazing PR that i would love to give you one way links from free, just let me know the anchor text.

I'm am very upset over all of this. Not only for you but for what the decision represents within our community/country.

Please continue to fight them, I would love to spend the next year making 10 sites to rank higher than them for their own term and push them to page 2. It would be beautiful, but i don't have the time to do this. Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 3:23pm.
sarasota wrote: Joel,

I appreciate the comment and your help. Can you email me at marcinsarasota@comcast.net to discuss? Posted on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 3:32pm.
Charles Richey wrote: Don't give up Marc. I hope the backlash will make them realize they made a huge mistake. The 301 you did should have been all the resolution required. Posted on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 5:32pm.
Jennifer wrote: Marc,

Your site was the impetus for obtaining my website. It is sad that these associations whose sole support comes from its members, continues to chastize and impeded their members business'.

This calamity has me feeling ashamed to be a Realtor. It used to be such a proud moment calling myself Realtor. Now, I'm not sure.

Best of luck and know that many of us are with you in your fight.

Why not try and get some of those 28 other agents to file suit to get their domain names back? There's power in numbers. Posted on Sunday, November 2nd, 2008 at 8:34pm.
Gulfshoreslife wrote: http://www.luxurysarasotarealestate.com/blog/sarasota/sarasota-association-of-realtors-says-august-2008-sees-continuation-of-summer-sales-slowdown/show/ Posted on Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 at 8:30pm.
Ben wrote: I'm writing because I actually support the deciscion of the Sarasota MLS. I think for 1 realtor to own that domain name is deceptive. Its kind of like those companies that send spam mail out to consumers asking them to refi but using font and format to make the letter appear as if it were from an official government department. When you have a domain like 'sarasotamls' you are basically deceiving the public into thinking that your website is the official MLS for Sarasota. Which is exactly why you picked that name. Its like a mortgage broker registering hud-sarasota.gov. There is no way that would be allowed and it shouldn't. I think it is completely appropriate for the SAR to be using member dues to protect you from monopolizing a domain that could confuse the average consumer into thinking that your website is the official MLS of sarasota, when it absolutely isn't. This could potentially be causing other SAR members to lose business. When you originally called the legal hotline back in 2002 these types of issues were too new to have been thoroughly thought out as to how they affect the rest of the realtors in your association. I thinks its good to see an association protecting its members from this type of what I see as basically false and deceptive advertising.

No offense I think you have a very nice website and you seem to be very internet savy. I'm sure you can get plenty of traffic on those merits alone. Posted on Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 at 1:37pm.
David Kyle wrote: Ben

What a fool you are. There was no deception on Marc's part. You obviously missed the part where a Realtor trade magazine recommended Realtor's use domains with their city and "MLS" in them. Your logic is also flawed. Having that domain does not mean that the public will automatically believe it's the "official MLS". Especially when the site clearly says it was not. Should the company that owns Sarasota.com lose their domain to city of Sarasota because people are confusing it as the city's official website? NO, BECAUSE IT'S NOT HAPPENING!

Marc is a dues paying member of the "official MLS", and anyone wanting to search or get their home listed on it would have to go through a member like Marc. It makes absolute perfect sense to allow Realtors to register these domain names. Not allowing Realtors to use these domains is what really causes confusion. Have a look at MLS.com for example!

Your hud-sarasota.gov comment shows how ignorant you are on the whole matter. That comparison is not even in the same ballpark! Posted on Friday, November 28th, 2008 at 6:23am.
Cal wrote: Marc,
Any news on this? Posted on Monday, February 2nd, 2009 at 11:40am.
Marc Rasmussen wrote: Hey Cal. Yes. I will do a blog post shortly. Nothing monumental. Thanks for asking. Posted on Monday, February 2nd, 2009 at 11:41am.
Ben wrote: Oh, I see Mr. Kyle, the naming idea came from a "Realtor trade magazine". In that case it has to be a legitimate legal practice and should stand up in any court of law for eternity... Posted on Monday, February 2nd, 2009 at 12:50pm.
Ken wrote: I don't understand how they could make claim to your domain name at all. No trademark issues, MLS is actually recognized and trademarked to Major League Soccer and why they don't own mls.com is a shame. Posted on Friday, June 12th, 2009 at 7:23pm.

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