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Zillow faces social media backlash over McMansion Hell copyright claims

By Mike Wheatley | June 28, 2017

Zillow is facing a social media backlash following its decision to send a cease-and-desist letter to the owner of prominent real estate blog McMansion Hell. The site is a kind of tongue-in-cheek website that pokes fun at so-called McMansions, with quirky comments like “windows you could scrape off with a butter knife”, and “doors to nowhere”.

Image courtesy of McMansion Hell/Facebook

Unfortunately it seems Zillow doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, and threatened site owner Kate Wagner, a John Hopkins architecture student, using a series of questionable legal claims. Zillow accuses Wagner of violating not only copyright laws and terms-of-service rules, but even a federal hacking law as well.

Zillow's cease-and-desist letter was posted online by the website Ars Technica, and Wagner has since taken the site offline. Taking to Twitter, Wagner said she was “terrified” and that she feared losing her income.

However, Zillow’s aggressive actions appear to have backfired, as legal experts quickly pointed out that Zillow’s legal claims are pretty much baseless. For one thing, Zillow doesn’t even own the copyright to the images Wagner used in her blog. Moreover, the way Wagner mocks them up with text splattered all over the images (usually poking fun at the houses) almost certainly qualifies as “fair use”, which is a law that allows for copyrighted works to be used without permission for things such as criticism, parody and reporting.

Legal experts also say Zillow is unlikely to be able to enforce its contractual terms-of-service against Wagner, or make a case using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is supposed to cover things like fraud or vandalism. Indeed, one prominent copyright professor has already offered to come to Wagner’s aid.

Meanwhile, Zillow is facing a PR backlash as legions of Twitter users come to Wagner’s defense:

For its part, Zillow appears to be attempting to dig itself out of a hole with the following statement issued to the media:

"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 statement read.

Meanwhile, McMansion Hell is all set to go back online soon. Wagner posted an update onto her Facebook page saying she's enlisted the support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and plans to respond to Zillow's statement soon:

Mike Wheatley is the senior editor at Realty Biz News. Got a real estate related news article you wish to share, contact Mike at [email protected].
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