Zillow Tries to Enforce Photo Copyright with Popular Blogger

In real estate news, it’s a case of David meets Goliath as a graduate student supporting herself via her website faces off against Internet giant, Zillow.

Meme Me in Court
Kate Wagner’s site, McMansionHell.com, spotlights large, architecturally-icky houses on her site, making memes out of home-listing photos to point out the less-than-stellar features of such ostentatious home fare.

The 23-year-old master’s student from Baltimore, working her way through a thesis in architectural acoustics, stated she was petrified when she received a letter from the real estate database giant just a few weeks ago, instructing her to cease-and-desist using the website’s photos. “It’s pretty terrifying when someone sends you such a letter.”

Tweet This
Wagner posted Zillow’s letter to her blog’s Twitter account, receiving enormous public support – and legal advice – from about 200 lawyers. She then retained Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to represent her, pro bono.

The following day, Zillow’s downtown Seattle headquarters was plastered with colorful signs denoting “MCMANSION HELL FOREVER.” Wagner has earned about $24,000 since her website’s inception a year ago. It’s been her primary source of income in her quest to pay rent, eat, and earn her master’s.

Bad Press is Not Necessarily Better than None
The PR backlash shocked Zillow, who had to perform damage-control on national and local news sites. Vice President Katie Curnutte, Zillow’s head public affairs guru, defended the company, noting that Zillow doesn’t own the rights to most of the photos it uses – it licenses those from other parties. Their exclusive access is allowed under a users’ agreement.

According to Zillow, if they allowed other sites to publish these photos, it would become difficult to obtain them from realtors. Their letter wasn’t intended to be personal and their lawsuit has since been dropped, with the agreement Zillow’s photos won’t be used going forward.

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