Does a snarky architecture blog have the right to scrawl all over Zillow listings?

Shown is a screenshot from the satirical architecture blog McMansion Hell.
(McMansion Hell)

The real estate website Zillow is the place you go to search for a home — and maybe marvel at high-end listings.

The snarky blog McMansion Hell is where you go to ridicule the kinds of homes you’ll never be able to afford.

The sites occupy opposite ends of the online real estate world — a reality that Zillow sought to end with a cease-and-desist letter this week.

McMansion Hell, run by graduate student Kate Wagner, pokes fun at exorbitant suburban eyesores, often overlaying sarcastic text atop photos of the homes. But some of those photos come from Zillow, which the Seattle-based company claimed was a violation of its terms of use.


On Monday, Zillow sent Wagner a letter demanding she delete any content lifted from Zillow by Thursday or face legal action.

Wagner — who makes money from the site using Patreon, an online platform where content creators can receive cash from fans — fought back. She took to Twitter, where she received an outpouring of support and backing from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group.

In a letter to Zillow, EFF staff attorney Daniel Nazer called the company’s legal complaints “baseless,” and detailed how Wagner’s blog falls within fair use — a legal doctrine that offers certain protections for criticism and commentary.


“Our client has no obligation to, and thus will not, comply with Zillow’s demands. Zillow’s legal threats are not supported and plainly seek to interfere with protected speech,” Nazer wrote.

Nazer also pointed out that Zillow does not own and can’t assert copyright of the photos. Most of the pictures on the site are shot by property sellers or real estate photographers.

Los Angeles real estate photographer Erik Grammer said he wouldn’t have a problem with Wagner using his photos on McMansion Hell. “I have no problem with parody,” he said. “That’s an important part of our culture. If she were selling the photographs, I would have an issue with it.”

On Thursday, Zillow announced it was backing down.

“We have decided not to pursue any legal action against Kate Wagner and McMansion Hell,” Zillow said in a statement. “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.”

Wagner, however, is still waiting for something else from Zillow — an apology.

“Also Zillow owes me an apology for threatening to ruin my life,” she tweeted.


Twitter: @makedaeaster

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