Zillow Threatens to Sue Satirical Blog McMansion Hell

Zillow Threatens to Sue Satirical Blog McMansion Hell

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Tara Bellucci
Jun 27, 2017
(Image credit: McMansion Hell)

McMansion Hell, a Tumblr blog that calls out bad architecture in the form of over the top suburban sprawl, has been sent a cease and desist letter from Zillow. The real estate aggregate says that the blog violates their terms of service by editing listing photos by adding commentary.

McMansion Hell was started in July 2016 by Kate Wagner, a Johns Hopkins graduate student focusing on architectural acoustics, and has since amassed a loyal following for her snarky takes on what Gizmodo calls "suburban ticky-tacky monstrosities."

Monday afternoon, Wagner posted the cease and desist letter to Twitter, with a call for legal help. McMansion Hell was temporarily taken down shortly after.

In the letter, Zillow alleges that Wagner is violating the site's terms of service by reproducing the images on her blog, as well as infringing on the copyright of the photos' original owners.

Wagner adds a disclaimer after each post, siting the Fair Use clause of the Copyright Act, which allows for the reproduction of images "for the purposes of education, satire, and parody." Zillow is claiming that the usage does not apply, and also that it may "[interfere] with Zillow's business expectations and interests."

Ironically, Zillow was recently found guilty of copyright infringement, and ordered to pay a photography company damages to the tune of $4 million.

"I've never received any warning from them before this," Wagner tells The Verge. "This blog is my entire livelihood and I am at risk of losing everything." Wagner sells merchandise with original artwork, accepts donations, and is turning the blog into an e-book.

Zillow responded to The Verge with the following statement:

Zillow has a legal obligation to honor the agreements we make with our listing providers about how photos can be used. We are asking this blogger to take down the photos that are protected by copyright rules, but we did not demand she shut down her blog and hope she can find a way to continue her work.

Update 6/28/17: As pointed out in the comments, Wagner will be represented by Electronic Frontier Foundation in her legal battles against Zillow, BoingBoing reports. Wagner posted the update on McMansion Hell's Tumblr, which is back up (McMansionHell.com is still down for now).

Update 6/30/17: Zillow has issued the following statement:

We have decided not to pursue any legal action against Kate Wagner and McMansion Hell. We've had a lot of conversations about this, including with attorneys from the EFF, whose advocacy and work we respect. EFF has stated that McMansion Hell won't use photos from Zillow moving forward.
It was never our intent for McMansion Hell to shut down, or for this to appear as an attack on Kate's freedom of expression. We acted out of an abundance of caution to protect our partners – the agents and brokers who entrust us to display photos of their clients' homes.
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