Zillow Sends Cease and Desist Letter to Hopkins Grad Student Who Runs Website ‘McMansion Hell’

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Photo via McMansion Hell

Johns Hopkins graduate student Kate Wagner moonlights as a blogger who satirizes cookie-cutter mansions around the country. But while many readers enjoy her mockery and crude annotations on images of homes for sale, real estate listing database Zillow doesn’t have quite the same sense of humor.

Last night, Wagner revealed that the company sent her a cease and desist letter instructing her to take down all photos grabbed from Zillow for McMansion Hell, and asking her to stop visiting Zillow.com altogether. Feeling overmatched by an influential real estate corporation, the 23-year-old grad student shared a copy of the letter with an SOS:

Zillow’s lawyers argue in their letter that Wagner’s use of grabbed images and her crude mockups – for example, her bold, curving arrows and notes (like saying oddly spaced doors and windows are “divorced just like mommy and daddy”) – violate Zillow.com’s terms of use. More severely, they also allege her activity constitutes copyright infringement and that it may violate a federal hacking law.

Wagner has until this Thursday to write back to Zillow. Her site has been temporarily taken down. She quickly appealed for legal help, and received an offer from a top copyright expert within hours:

In a statement, Wagner said “the goal of McMansion Hell has always been to educate people about architecture in an entertaining way. Regardless of what happens, I plan on continuing on in the spirit of that vision.”

She added that running McMansion Hell and the offshoot freelance writing gigs she’s received have “been my livelihood for a little under a year now, so receiving a notice like this is, of course, utterly terrifying.”

In a statement provided to Fortune, the company said it doesn’t want to mess with Wagner’s life. “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,” the company said.

Wagner’s admittedly biased supporters on Twitter argued Zillow doesn’t stand a chance trying to uphold its claims in court. Many said, contrary to what the company’s lawyers wrote, that her content clearly constitutes fair use, a legal doctrine that allows people to use copyrighted works without permission for certain uses like satire, criticism and – of course – reporting.

They also pointed out that Zillow’s business model operates in part on grabbing photos from other sources online, which is exactly what Wagner has done.

Wagner wrote to her 11,000-plus (and growing) followers today that McMansion Hell should be back up tonight, once her site has been archived by bots. She expressed thanks to all who reached out, and even said she’s picked up a valuable lesson from the kerfuffle:

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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