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Everyone is Very Excited about Zillows' New iPhone App…Auston?

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First, I will start with a confession: I am not of the iPhone-borg. Therefore, I will not debate the quality or the value of the new Zillow iPhone application. Zillow’s CEO Rich Barton announced the launch a few days ago and everyone seems very excited:

But, behind the scenes of all this excitement Zillow may be killing opportunity. There is a tiny little back story emerging around the launch of the Zillow iPhone app (hat tip: Joseph Ferrera)–it wasn’t the first.

Here is a quick synopsis of iZillow and Auston Bunsen (via: Sellsius Real Estate):

Last year in May I created an iPhone interface for Zillow’s “zestimator” – it was all fun and games, got a little bit of blog coverage/mentions & an overall good response. Zillow seemed to be all for it.

Then the New York Times included it in one of it’s articles – and Zillow asked me to very simply put the words “unofficial version” and a link at the bottom of the app.

No problem. Done. (link added)

Joseph Ferrera eloquently takes you down the legal path and gives a good primer on trademark law. I want to take you down another strategic path–the power of free software development.

Here are a few key points in this controversy:

  • Zillow provides an API (application programming interface) for software developers
  • Typically, this is done to encourage the creation of (a lot of) creative and interesting applications
  • Software engineers get to leveraging the value of your platform and/or data
  • API owners get more users looking at the value of their platform and/or data
  • This is the juice behind Web 2.0

Software engineers love to create. Often, they are artist. They develop and innovate without regard for the monetization of their creations. They value users using their software, over payment.

Treated well, given a good API, and a little support–they will build thousands of apps, introduce thousands of customers, or enhance the experience of thousands of customers. All to the benefit of your business. Want proof?

Even more importantly, each of these applications creates sticky customers! Ask users of iPhone, Firefox (especially), Twitter why they don’t switch to alternatives. Answer: they can’t live without the apps or plug-ins.

Here is the point: Defend your trademark. However, don’t use your API developer community as competitive intelligence or test marketers. If you do, you will lose a valuable developer network and potential market share.

What are your thoughts? I didn’t interview Auston or Zillow–did I miss some facts (Auston, Drew, or David)? Do you think Zillow is giving up opportunity for a single iPhone app? Do you this Zillow handled the issue well?


Good news today, however, as the situation seems to have been resolved.

A statement received by this blog this afternoon reads:

We reached an amicable agreement to purchase the URL. I don’t want to discuss the agreed price but it’s more than the $250 he 1st requested.
He can continue to run the site with different branding. Pity this got unnecessarily heated; other than this, Auston seems like a good guy.

Kudos to both parties for being able to come to a friendly agreement.

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May 1, 2009 by · 5 Comments

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5 Responses to “Everyone is Very Excited about Zillows' New iPhone App…Auston?”
  1. Hi Bill,

    You’ve misread this story but that’s understandable; it’s a bit tangled up at this stage. This is purely a trademark issue. iZillow.net will not be shut down if the developer stops abusing our trademark.

    The API and our developer community is an important piece of the Zillow marketing plan and we greatly appreciate the reach that it gives our content. Use of our API is subject to TOU’s. Some API data may not be used in apps (only in “web sites”) but any such restrictions relate to our raw data licensing agreements. For example; we can make mortgage rate data available to iPhone App developers but not home facts yet home facts may be used in a web page optimized for mobile browsers (like the iZillow.net site does.)

    Wrapping up: iZillow.net is a great site and one we’d like to see continue to operate but only if they stop abusing our brand.

  2. Bill Rice says:


    Thanks for the comment and Zillow’s perspective. As I mentioned in the post, trademarks aren’t worth anything without defending them. I respect that.

    As for API management and TOU agreements, these are complex debates and difficult to get right (ask Facebook and Google).


    Are there other perspectives or opinions? I would love to hear from iZillow.net and Auston Bunsen.

  3. Vertis says:

    David and Drew (from Zillow) have been very agressive in maintaining that this is just a trademark issue. They also maintain (this has been confirmed by Auston) that the $250 figure was Auston’s number. According to Auston they offered a couple of hundred bucks.

    It’s not, and it never will be just a trademark issue, not to Auston anyway. He’s been running iZillow.net since May last year (and all the sweat and blood that comes with that). Has built up a user base & links from the rest of the internet (NYTimes, blogs, etc).

    Regardless of who put the figure on the table, I would like to see Zillow rise above and put a large figure on the table. They need to think about the impact that they’re having on an individual.

  4. Bill Rice says:


    Thanks for your comments and adding to the discussion.

    It seems there was (according to Sellsius’ coverage) some acknowledgment of the application and its value in it’s early stages, which operated as iZillow and iZillow.net.

    Having built domains and user communities over the years, I can appreciate the value of that effort.

    Regardless of who is right or wrong in the situation it is going to have an impact. At the very least, it is going to put caution in the mind of software engineers building value around other companies APIs–Web 2.0 Fail.

    I think the “U-turn” that seems to have occurred once the importance of iPhone apps was validated is the core issue. If it is truly just a trademark issue it probably should have been solved back in May.

    It will be an interesting case/precedent to watch. All thoughts and information are welcome.

  5. alex says:

    yes, behind the scenes of all this excitement Zillow may be killing opportunity. There is a tiny little back story emerging around the launch of the Zillow iPhone…
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