McMansion Hell vs Zillow: Who’s in the Wrong?

Architecture blogger, Kate Wagner from McMansion Hell, recently received an unexpected scare when a demand letter from the real-estate giant, Zillow Inc., appeared in her inbox on June 26, 2017. Zillow demanded that Wagner remove images of homes from her website that she featured with her own critical and humorous commentary. The demand letter was enough to frighten Wagner into temporarily disabling her blog and Twitter account until she could seek legal counsel regarding the alleged copyright infringement.

Zillow’s Claims

In the letter, Zillow claimed that Wagner was copying, modifying, and publicly displaying content from their website on her blog, McMansion Hell. This action, they stated, violated Zillow’s Terms of Use.

The letter claimed that Wagner admitted to the violation in certain posts. This admission, they noted, was made by appropriately crediting the source of the images by stating, “(a)ll photographs in this post are from real estate aggregate…” and that all posts featured were “(m)anipulated photos.”

Further in the letter, Zillow elaborated that Wagner infringed upon the rights of the copyright holders of the images. On the McMansion Hell blog, Wagner stated that the images were used “for the purposes of education, satire, and parody, consistent with 17 U.S.C § 107.” Zillow claims that Wagner’s display of the images does not constitute fair use.

Finally, Zillow also argued that Wagner’s activities violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C § 1030, by “prohibiting fraud and interference with Zillow’s business expectations and interests.”

In their cease and desist letter, Zillow did not demand that Wagner go to such extreme lengths as temporarily disabling her website, but they put forth several other demands including:

  • Ceasing all access to the Zillow site; and
  • Deleting all images and derivatives thereof on her site.

Does Zillow Have a Case?

It’s undoubtedly unnerving to receive such a demand letter from a business as large as Zillow, which is why Wagner decided to temporarily disable her site until securing legal counsel. Wagner claims, however, that she was acting for the purposes of education, satire, and parody, purposes that are in fact consistent with the law. We believe that Zillow Inc. is in the wrong and that the photos in question are actually fair use.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you receive a letter from an attorney representing a company with deep pockets. Immediately seeking legal counsel was the right thing for Wagner to do, and now, her website is back online.

As for Zillow? It has been tight-lipped about the case. In a statement to the publication ARS Technica, it said, “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.”

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