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McMansion Hell
A sample of the commentary Kate Wagner provided on images on her website McMansion Hell. (McMansion Hell via

Update: Follow this link for the latest developments on this story. 

The Tumblr blogger who took down her popular website “McMansion Hell” on Monday after receiving a threatening cease-and-desist letter from Zillow Group said that the site will be back up sometime Tuesday. In the meantime, Kate Wagner, a graduate student in architectural acoustics whose site was home to her criticisms of suburban housing designs, appears to be winning the PR battle that erupted on the internet.

Wagner tweeted a statement thanking people for the outpouring of support in the wake of news that Seattle-based Zillow’s legal department had demanded that she stop using images of houses from the real estate media company’s website.

Tuesday afternoon she informed her followers, and folks paying close attention to this developing story, that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken on her cause.

Having never had any major copyright infringement claims regarding her work prior to yesterday, Wagner called the letter from Zillow corporate counsel Christopher Poole “utterly terrifying” because McMansion Hell and freelance writing gigs she gets because of it have been her livelihood for a little under a year.

Zillow’s argument that Wagner’s use of images from the Zillow site didn’t meet her definition of “fair use” also attracted lawyers looking to defend Wagner and that assertion. Forbes reported that Rebecca Tushnet, a prominent copyright professor, was one such person who reached out to Wagner.

Both Forbes and The Verge pointed out that Wagner’s case is even stronger when measured against the fact that Zillow doesn’t even own the copyright for the images that it is complaining about. Buzzfeed News also spoke to legal experts who were “not impressed” with Zillow’s arguments.

No doubt realizing that the harshly worded letter from its lawyers against a popular blog was creating a bit of PR backlash on the internet, Zillow VP of communications Katie Curnutte sent a new letter to Wagner on Tuesday, as shared with GeekWire:

Dear Kate,

Over the past day, we’ve had a lot of questions from the media about the cease and desist our legal team sent to you. I understand why — your blog is well-loved by its many fans.

I wanted to write to both thank you for taking down the photos, but also to give you a little bit of context around the request.

Mostly, though, I want to stress that we do not want you to take down your blog. We hope you will be able to resume your writing and find other sources for photos.

As for why we requested you remove the photos from Zillow – we do not own the rights to many of the photos on our site, and therefore can’t give permission for third parties, such as yourself, to take the photos from our website for any purpose. We get them from brokerages and MLSs who are advertising homes for sale and through those agreements we have an obligation to protect the interest of the copyright holders who license the images to Zillow.

We are happy to answer any questions about this, and I sincerely hope you are able to find other sources for photos.


Katie Curnutte

The backlash even extended beyond the internet in Seattle and came to Zillow’s doorstep on Tuesday morning. Seattle Times real estate reporter Mike Rosenberg tweeted a picture of a flyer that he said was “plastered all over” the outside of the company’s downtown headquarters.

Until she returns with McMansion Hell — in whatever form that takes when it comes to the images she lays her comments over the top of — Wagner is using her voice on Twitter to thank everyone, mostly, for all the attention.

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