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The Glamour Of Grammar

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Posted On: 12/24/2014

Question: Why do newspapers insist on capitalizing the term “Realtor” when other similarly used nouns such as “appraiser,” “lender” and “borrower” are not capitalized?

Answer: In real estate we usually think in terms of houses and property, tangible assets that we can touch and feel. However, there also is something called “intellectual property,” where assets can be very real even though they lack a physical presence. The term “Realtor” is an example of intellectual property.

Intellectual property broadly refers to creations of the human mind, such as trademarks, copyrights, service marks, literary works and symbols. Once an intellectual-property owner has staked out a claim their property can be protected from unauthorized use in the same way that only you have the right within applicable rules to determine how your property will be used, if you want it used at all.

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“A trademark,” says the World Intellectual Property Organization, “is a distinctive sign that identifies certain goods or services produced or provided by an individual or a company.”

It adds that “the system helps consumers to identify and purchase a product or service based on whether its specific characteristics and quality – as indicated by its unique trademark – meet their needs.”

A major problem with intellectual property is that ownership rights can slip away if a term is used in a generic manner. Expressions in the U.S. such as “elevator,” “aspirin,” “laundromat,” “thermos” and “videotape” were once copyrighted but are now regarded as generic. In a similar sense, the owner of real property can lose their right of exclusive usage with an “easement by prescription,” a situation where unauthorized usage meets certain conditions and continues over time.

To protect their rights intellectual property owners engage lots of lawyers to vigorously protect such things as trademarks and copyrights, and this brings us to “Realtor,” a term owned by the National Association of Realtors.

One of the major purposes of a trademark is to create marketplace distinctions. Real estate “brokers” are licensed by state regulators, but only NAR members may describe themselves as a 'Realtor.” Thus, it is possible for Smith to be a licensed real estate broker but not a Realtor, while Jones with NAR membership might be both a licensed broker and a Realtor.

Why then do media outlets not use the term “Realtor” with a trademark symbol?

If you think about traditional print media such as newspapers, books and magazines you can see that trademark and copyright symbols scattered repeatedly throughout blocks of type would make reading difficult. Thus, the standard in journalism is not to use such symbols, a tradition which has carried over to electronic media.

The result of assorted rules and traditions is that reporters write about both “brokers” and “Realtors” in an effort to respect intellectual property claims while at the same time producing content in an accepted style that is both easy to read and absorb.

Peter G. Miller is the author of The Common-Sense Mortgage and a veteran real estate columnist. Have a question? Please write to peter@ctwfeatures.com.

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