Zillow Backed Down After Threatening A 23-Year-Old Woman Over Her Popular Blog

Kate Wagner relaunched her popular McMansion Hell blog Thursday and said she wouldn't comply with Zillow's demand to delete photos.

Earlier this week, real estate website Zillow demanded that Kate Wagner delete photos from her popular architecture blog, McMansion Hell. But after she refused to comply Thursday, relaunching the blog with all the photos still there, Zillow backed down and opted not to pursue legal action.

Posts on the McMansion Hell blog typically showcase giant homes with funny and sarcastic comments superimposed on real estate listing photos. The blog launched last year and has exploded in popularity in recent months.

Zillow sent its first letter to Wagner on Monday, demanding that she delete all photos obtained from Zillow's website, perhaps the largest and most influential real estate site on the internet.

Lawyers representing Wagner, who is a 23-year-old grad student, responded to Zillow on Thursday afternoon. Their letter states that Wagner "has no obligation to, and thus will not, comply with Zillow's demands."

The five-page letter from law firm Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that "McMansion Hell educates the public about architectural concepts, urban planning, environmentalism, and history."

"The site alternates comedy-oriented discussions of individual houses with weekly informative essays about urbanism, architecture, sociology, and interior design," the letter continues.

Zillow previously told BuzzFeed News that it does not own the photos that it uses. Instead, a company spokesperson said, the copyright owners are the original real estate agents who took the pictures and as a result "it could be liable" if someone was using the photos.

But the letter from Wagner's attorneys devotes nearly a page to refuting the argument that Zillow's own terms of use prevented Wagner from using the photos.

Wagner's attorneys also argue that the blog is covered by "fair use," a legal doctrine that under certain circumstances lets content creators use and modify other people's work for things like criticism and satire.

"Wagner transforms the photographs with her critical annotations
and uses the photographs for a radically different purpose than Zillow or the original
photographers," the letter states.

In a statement, EFF added that "Zillow’s demand letter made a number of highly dubious legal claims."

McMansion Hell had gone offline Monday after Wagner first announced on Twitter that Zillow sent her a cease-and-desist order. When it reappeared Thursday, it still featured plenty of photos with Wagner's characteristic burns.

The letter from Wagner's attorneys said that she would "not be deleting any posts," but that in the future she will not use photos from Zillow "in the interests of compromise."

"Given this, we sincerely hope Zillow will have the good sense not to trouble a court of law with this matter," the letter adds.

On Thursday afternoon, after EFF sent its letter, Zillow announced that it would "not to pursue any legal action against Kate Wagner and McMansion Hell."

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Zillow said that 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," the statement continued.

The company ultimately "had a lot of conversations about this," including with Wagner's lawyers, and decided against moving forward with legal action.

The return of the blog and lack of further legal action concludes an intense, four-day drama that saw an outpouring of support for McMansion Hell and a major backlash against Zillow.

Wagner's tweets about the Zillow's cease-and-desist order were shared hundreds of times. Many legal experts, some of whom spoke to BuzzFeed News, also expressed doubts that Zillow could win a case in court.

After initially taking down McMansion Hell, Wagner had also promised to bring it back. As of Thursday, the top post on the blog was titled "McMansion Hell Responds to Zillow’s Unfounded Legal Claims."

After Zillow announced Thursday that it would not pursue legal action, EFF said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that it was pleased.

"We hope that other companies seeking to shut down humor and parody online see this as a cautionary tale," EFF added, "and avoid sending threats in the first place."

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