Hopkins student under fire with Zillow for photos on parody 'McMansion Hell' blog

Update (June 30): Zillow has decided not to pursue further legal action against Kate Wagner and her McMansion Hell website. Read the update here. The original story appears below.

A Johns Hopkins student is under fire with real estate marketplace and website Zillow for using its images on her parody Tumblr blog.


Zillow sent Kate Wagner, a Peabody Institute graduate student, a cease and desist letter Monday for allegedly "reproducing, modifying, distributing, or otherwise creating derivative" images from Zillow's website and using them on her website "McMansion Hell," an act that the company says violates the Copyright Act and may "[interfere] with Zillow's business expectations and interests."

Wagner, whose website stated that pictures were from Zillow and that they were manipulated, often posts pictures poking fun at the architecture and prices of homes with clever captions.


The real estate database has demanded that Wagner remove all images from her blog and refrain from using them in the future. The company also demanded that Wagner respond to their letter before 5 p.m. Thursday.

Zillow confirmed the letter via email to The Baltimore Sun.

After contacted by media about Zillow's cease and desist letter, the company stated that Katie Curnutte, its vice president of communications and public affairs, wrote an email to Wagner to say that the company does not own the rights to many of the photos on the site, and therefore can't give permission for third parties to use the photos.

Curnette assured Wagner that Zillow did not want her to remove her blog.

"We hope you will be able to resume your writing and find other sources for photos," Curnette wrote.

Wagner released a statement on Twitter Monday, stating that she is now seeking counsel in order to respond to Zillow before their deadline.

Wagner also noted that this was the first time she had received copyright complaints for the job, which has been her livelihood for under a year.

"It is my most sincere hope that this issue is resolved as amicably as possible," she wrote.

Wagner said she temporarily took her website down to make an archive of all of the photos used and that it would be up again Tuesday evening. While the main domain mcmansionhell.com, listed in her Twitter is bio is down, the tumblr with her posts — mcmansionhell.tumblr.com — is still active.

In a Twitter message to The Sun, Wagner said she is being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and that they will be responding to Zillow soon.

McMansion Hell, or at least its original vision, will be also be relaunching soon on its main domain.

"The goal of McMansion Hell has always been to educate people about architecture in an entertaining way. Regardless of what happens, I plan on continuing on in the spirit of that vision. Architecture is an amazing and intricate field I firmly believe everyone should have access to learning about," she wrote.


*This article has been updated to include additional comments from Kate Wagner on the status of her dispute with Zillow.

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