When I moved to New York over seven years ago, it wasn’t easy finding an apartment. Internet rental listings had not yet caught on; I actually had to pick up the phone and call (gasp!) a broker or a friend to help locate available apartments. Since then, there has been a proliferation of web sites and mobile applications that provide listings of available apartments (see my prior posts about short-term listings on AirBnB here and here).

Some of these sites, such as NYBits, provide listings of only “no-fee” apartments (i.e., no broker’s fee is required), while other sites, such as NakedApartments, RentHop and StreetEasy, provide listings of both “fee” and “no-fee” apartments. What is unclear, however, is how these sites are obtaining their listings. While property management companies, brokers and landlords often provide their listings directly to some of these sites, it is unlikely that all of the listings are derived from such standard sources. Instead, it is quite possible that, through a process known as “scraping”, these sites are taking and copying listings from third-party sites. Basically, scraping is the process of collecting large amounts of data from another website, most often through the use of automated web tools. Scraping is a quite common practice and is used to aggregate plane fares, movie reviews and sports scores, to name a few examples.

Last year, a website called PadMapper was sued by Craigslist for scraping rental listings posted on Craigslist and republishing the listings on PadMapper’s site. Craigslist alleged that PadMapper (through the use of a company called 3Taps) violated Section 1030(a)(2)(C) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”), which imposes liability on one who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization … and thereby obtains … information from any protected computer”. Even though Craigslist was (and is) a publicly available website, the court found that PadMapper accessed the site “without authorization” because Craigslist had sent PadMapper a cease-and-desist letter and implemented IP blocking measures. Craigslist isn’t the only site seeking to prevent third parties from scraping their content. Sites like EBay, Facebook and the Associated Press have also brought scraping-related lawsuits, alleging violations of (in addition to the CFAA) copyright infringement, breach of contract, trespass to chattels and the CAN-SPAM Act.

The verdict is still out on the legality of scraping. With respect to websites that scrape apartment listings, however, the PadMapper case may be an outlier, since PadMapper meticulously and intentionally circumvented Craigslist’s anti-scraping mechanisms. As long as these sites comply with terms of use policies and obey cease-and-desist letters, they should be able to sleep easy – and as long as I don’t have to pick up the phone to find an apartment, I can sleep easy as well.