Realtor® Marks in Cyberspace
By Mike Thiel
While the rapid growth of membership has been a boon to the Realtor® organization, it has also presented challenges when it comes to membership obligation awareness. One such challenge has been educating members about the permissible ways to use the term Realtor® in their marketing efforts, especially online. After all, the use of the term Realtor® is a privilege of membership and is subject to the rules established by the National Association of Realtors®’ Board of Directors.
Traditionally, local associations have been vigilant about identifying misuses of the term Realtor® on a local level. When it comes to misuses in cyberspace, NAR has been more involved. On a typical day, NAR will contact 25 to 30 individuals regarding their use of the term Realtor® in domain names. The legal department will respond to another half-dozen people who call with inquiries regarding the proper use of the term.
This may seem like a significant number of people each day, but in fact, it represents only a small fraction of the number of people who have registered domain names that include the term Realtor®. Even the simplest search of the domain name registry reveals that there are thousands of domain names that include the term Realtor®. To help identify new misuses of the term, NAR uses a service that tracks changes to domain name registrations and reports any that include the term Realtor®.
When you consider that each of NAR’s million-plus members is licensed to use the term Realtor® in their domain name with their name, there are immediately over a million possible proper domain names in use. Factor in the different permissible permutations and the number grows exponentially. That’s why NAR will carefully review any Web site to attempt to determine the user’s membership status before calling into question the use of the term Realtor® in the user’s domain.
The rules are not complex
The rules governing the use of the term Realtor® in a domain name are (for the most part) the same rules that govern use of the Realtor® marks in all media. Even so, it is one of the simplest rules that is most commonly violated. Members are not authorized to use descriptive words or phrases, including geographically specific words, with the term Realtor®.
When you keep in mind that the primary purpose of the term Realtor® is to distinguish members from nonmembers, the rationale for this rule is pretty clear. If Realtor® is used with a descriptive word such as “biggest,” its function is changed from distinguishing between members and nonmembers to distinguishing among members. When the term is used with a geographic name, it could be misunderstood by the public as an association endorsement. Of course, local and state associations may use a geographically descriptive term (related to their assigned jurisdiction and consistent with their name) along with the term Realtor®.
Masquerading as members
It’s not only members who are trying to use the Realtor® mark in their domain names. Those seeking to sell goods or services to people in the real estate business often try to use it as well. While some of these people may not realize that the Realtor® mark identifies only those real estate professionals who are members of NAR, many others fully understand and use it to falsely bolster their product’s credibility. The use of the term Realtor® in the name of a product, unless that product emanates from NAR, should always be assumed to be improper and unauthorized. If you ever encounter such a site, check it carefully to determine its validity. Absolutely never hesitate to contact NAR to verify authenticity before sending money or other information.
Education is half the battle
Many members, when questioned by NAR, say that they had no idea the rules even existed. Others simply haven’t absorbed the information regarding the use of the Realtor® marks as a part of membership. So, they register a domain name that misuses the term Realtor®, or worse yet, pay an inflated fee to a domain reseller. The member has not only unwittingly spent money on this inappropriate domain name, but also may have printed collateral materials that reference the site. When we ask the member to discontinue the use of this domain name, we are asking the member to eat a substantial cost in some cases.
That’s why, when NAR contacts someone about their domain name, we try our best to help them understand the rules. First we explain the special status of the terms Realtor® and Realtors®. After the rules are explained, we ask that the necessary changes be made to rectify any misuse. We explain how, by cooperating, they are contributing to our ability to distinguish Realtors® as professionals the public should trust with their real estate needs, and how, ultimately, the value of the Realtor® marks is being increased for everyone.
Overall, most members change their domain names once the rules have been explained to them. But sometimes members will come up with some interesting stories to avoid making any changes. One common claim is that their domain name was purchased before there were any rules and therefore they shouldn’t have to be bound by them. As stated earlier, there were no new rules created for use of the Realtor® marks on the Internet, the same rules, established more than 80 years ago that govern all other uses of the Realtor® marks govern use on the Internet.
Proper use in e-mail addresses
These same rules govern the use of the term Realtor® in e-mail addresses, although some minor adjustments have had to be made to accommodate technological limitations. Members may use the term Realtor® in their e-mail address provided it is used with their name or the name of their real estate business. While the preferred format for the term Realtor® is in all uppercase letters with the registered mark, the registered mark is an unrecognizable character in e-mail addresses and cannot be used. Additionally, spam filtering programs consider messages sent from an address that uses all caps as suspicious and may filter it as junk mail or block its delivery altogether. With these things in mind, domain names, e-mail address, and e-mail subject lines can use lowercase or just an initial upper case “R” for the term Realtor® and no registration symbol.
Issues of proper use of the Realtor® marks on the Internet may never be completely resolved especially since courts have made it impossible to cut off misuse at the domain-name seller level. So the National Association continues its campaign to educate members about how they can and cannot use the Realtor® marks.
Mike Thiel is an associate counsel in NAR’s legal department. He can be reached at email@example.com.