A snowboarder enjoys 6'' of new snow, Monday Jan. 03, 2011, at Breckenridge. As the busy holiday season comes to a close for area ski resorts, the heavy snow amounts that the Colorado mountains saw during that time was a welcome sight for visitors. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

The co-founder of HomeAway.com, the nation's largest online vacation-rental site, says the effort by several Colorado towns to scour the company's websites for homeowners who might not be paying local and state lodging taxes is "patently illegal" and constitutes intellectual-property theft.
"We simply cannot allow the violation of the privacy of our customers," said Carl Shepherd, who this week sent cease-and-desist letters to several towns and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. " 'Scraping' — and that's what this is — is illegal. Most of the time we are scraped, it's by nefarious guys in Bulgaria or Nigeria who want to do us harm or steal from us. This is an interesting approach by an entity working for governments, saying it's OK to break the law if you are finding people who might not be paying their taxes."
"Scraping" called a violation
Shepherd's letters demand that the Colorado Association of Ski Towns direct its members Winter Park, Grand Lake, Breckenridge, Dillon, Silverthorne and Frisco to cancel contracts with Virginia-based VR Compliance, which is searching several online vacation-rental sites, including HomeAway's, for homeowners who are not paying taxes.
Shepherd argues that the "scraping" violates a "fundamental privacy right" between his company and the Colorado users who advertise through its sites, which includeVRBO.comandvacationrentals.com.
When the association first contactedHomeAway.comwith its plans to search for rogue renters, Shepherd's team said the plan was illegal, Shepherd said. The company offered to help inform its users about local and state tax codes.
"They said they would help educate people, which we think is truly bunk," said Tim Gagen, town manager for Breckenridge, whereVRBO.comfirst sprouted in 1995. "We don't want education. We want information."
The association, which is an organization of 25 mountain towns that merely directed its members to VR Compliance, and the six towns that are testing the rental search program will not stop their searching.
"VR Compliance assured us they are not in violation of those federal or state scraping laws," said Gagen, who expects the issue is headed to court.
Assertion "interesting"
Katina Banks, an intellectual-property lawyer with Dorsey & Whitney LLP in Denver who is not involved in the dispute, called HomeAway's intellectual-property assertion "interesting" but said she doesn't believe it rises to an intellectual-property claim.
"Without more information, I'm having a hard time seeing the taking of an asset and using of an asset which would constitute an intellectual-property infringement," Banks said.
Banks said it does not appear to be an infringement because the mountain towns and association are not using the information to solicit for property rentals or anything similar.
"They are not reproducing it or distributing it, which would lead to a copyright claim. They are just using it and barring some inappropriate access or claim of theft. I don't believe there is a trade-secret issue here," Banks said.
David Atherton, the owner of VR Compliance, said his program does not expose private data. As an owner of several small technology companies, Atherton said he is "philosophically opposed" to violating privacy agreements between companies and clients.
"I can say without reservation that we don't scrape. We don't hack. We don't steal. We don't misappropriate or otherwise misuse any private data from his or any other website," said Atherton, who has not been contacted byHomeAway.comor seen the cease-and-desist letter.
"We help municipalities level the taxation playing field," Atherton said.
Staff writer Howard Pankratz contributed to this report. Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 orjblevins@denverpost.com