Real estate aggregator site Zillow has sent a cease and desist letter to the creator of McMansion Hell, the most popular lampooner of suburban ticky-tacky monstrosities. Zillow claims that by using photos from its site, the architectural criticism blog violates its terms of service.
McMansion Hell posts feature promotional home shots taken from real estate sites, along with hilarious commentary and annotations about things like “doors to nowhere,”“windows you could scrape off with a paint knife,” “compulsory chandeliers,” and “dueling bay window purgatory.”
The site is run by Kate Wagner, a Johns Hopkins graduate student focusing on architectural acoustics. Wagner shared the letter on Twitter along with a solicitation for help.
Since Wagner launched the blog in July 2016 it has built a loyal following and been featured on dozens of sites, including Huffington Post, Slate, and Business Insider. But earlier today, the project was featured in a Washington Post article about the McMansion boom. “[McMansions] were built to sell in the year they were selling, not for future generations,” Wagner told the Post. “These houses are kind of disfigured, because they were built from the inside out, to have the most amenities to sell faster.”
Wagner told Gizmodo she makes about $22,000 a year from freelance writing and McMansion Hell Patreon donations and merchandise sales. “Needless to say, if something significant were to happen to the blog, I would be financially devastated,” she said.
According to The Verge, Wagner plans to make McMansion Hell into an e-book, which would feature purchased licensed photos.
Wagner is currently seeking legal counsel. She said she has removed photos before when she was approached by photographers whose images she took off real estate sites. Shortly after sharing the letter, Wagner took the site down.
But Zillow said it hopes Wagner can keep McMansion Hell alive. “The intent of the letter wasn’t to force the writer to shut down her site, but we have a legal obligation to enforce the agreements we make with the people who provide listings on Zillow,” a Zillow spokesperson told Gizmodo. “We can’t give away what is not ours, so we are asking her to take down the photos that came from Zillow.”
People are already calling the legal move a bullshit attempt to avoid criticism, but it may have more to do with Zillow’s own legal troubles.
In February, a federal jury ordered Zillow to pay $8.3 million in a copyright infringement lawsuit to photo company VHT over images used on Zillow. Last Tuesday, a U.S. District Court cut the damages award in half.
Update 6/27 5:20 pm: The Electronic Frontier Foundation is representing Wagner. EFF attorney Daniel Nazer shared a statement with Gizmodo:
“We are representing Kate Wagner and will be sending a detailed response to all of Zillow’s contentions soon. We hope that Zillow comes to appreciate that it made a mistake and withdraws the threat.”