Canada's largest real estate board sues listings website Mongohouse for $2.1M

TORONTO — The Toronto Real Estate Board is suing property listings website Mongohouse for $2 million, alleging that the anonymously-run page is illegally accessing, copying and distributing proprietary data.

The board, which is the largest in Canada and represents more than 50,000 realtors across the Greater Toronto Area, filed the lawsuit last month in Federal Court asking for an immediate and permanent injunction for the popular website to be taken down.

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In the statement of claim, TREB alleges that Mongohouse participates in an "orchestrated strategy to avoid and elude" the board's multiple attempts over the past two years to shut it down.

It claims the website is infringing on the board's copyrights by "employing various techniques to illegally data scrape" information that it provides to its fee-paying members through its internal multiple-listings service (MLS). This includes data such as new property listings, descriptions, sold prices and photography.

It goes on to allege that Mongohouse is profiting from advertisers by its daily "unauthorized access" of this information, which it then displays on its website for free.

The board said Thursday it could not comment further on the legal action because the issue was now before the courts.

Meanwhile, efforts to contact Mongohouse were unsuccessful. A statement of claim has not yet been filed with the Federal Court.

In the filing dated Sept. 12, TREB says it doesn't know how its information is being accessed, but it believes it is the source because it placed "unique information" in its system and saw it appear on the Mongohouse website within 24 to 48 hours.

"All of the information on the Mongohouse website for this purpose is only available from the TREB MLS system," said the claim. "There is no other means available for Mongohouse to obtain the information that is available and made publicly accessible through the Mongohouse website."

The board argues that it has spent "tens of millions" of dollars to create and maintain its MLS system and that it suffers "injury and irreparable harm" when Mongohouse "continues to pass itself off as offering the same services..."

In addition to naming Mongohouse.com and Mongohouse.ca in its lawsuit, the claim also names the website's unknown operators (John and Jane Doe); web server Digital Ocean Canada Inc. and its U.S. based subsidiaries, as well as Sheng Lan Mai who is also known as Maxim Mai, of Richmond Hill, Ont.

The board claims that Mai is a software engineer at IBM and "appears to be the original author and creator of Mongohouse." It is unclear whether he is currently the operator of the website.

The lawsuit is asking that the court order all information related to the operations of Mongohouse be turned over, including financial dealings and communications.

TREB is claiming $2 million in damages and an additional $100,000 for copyright infringement, as well as legal costs.

The court documents detail the elaborate efforts by TREB to take down Mongohouse since it became aware of its existence in September 2016.

The Mongohouse website, which has a reported 50,000 registered users, uses a map function to display new listings and sold prices across the Greater Toronto Area. It also provides property photos and descriptions of listings. Users had to log into with passwords to access the information.

The website has been offline since Oct. 1.

"MongoHouse.com is unavailable until further notice. At the moment, Mongohouse is unable to comment and/or share more information until further instructions given," said the message.

In August, the Supreme Court of Canada announced it would not hear a case where TREB was fighting to prevent home sales data from being posted on realtors' password-protected websites.

TREB had argued for seven years at three judicial bodies that allowing the data to be released would create privacy and copyright concerns, but the Competition Bureau insisted keeping the numbers under wraps was anti-competitive and stifled innovation.

Since then, a handful of realty brokerages have made sales price data available on their websites.

Follow @LindaNguyenTO on Twitter.

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