A threatened lawsuit from the giant Zillow corporation over her McMansion Hell blog has landed North Carolina-raised musician-designer-composer Kate Wagner in the midst of a legal wrangle between homegrown cyber-lore and corporate America.
Wagner, a UNC-Greensboro grad from Southern Pines, started McMansion Hell less than a year ago as a vehicle for her mordant, satirical, often hilarious comments on the stylings of giant suburban homes. She adorned photos, some credited to Zillow, with commentary such as “doors to nowhere,” “seriously do any of these windows match?” and “doors & windows: divorced just like mommy & daddy.”
“When I started the blog back in July, I told my boyfriend at the time that I wanted to start an ugly house blog,” Wagner said Wednesday as she walked to a bus stop in Baltimore, where she’s a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. “There wasn’t a blog that said why the houses are ugly.”
The site quickly went viral, with forty-two thousand followers and ten thousand Facebook likes when Wagner shut it down. She was responding to a cease-and-desist letter, often the prelude to a lawsuit, from Zillow. The letter dated Monday claimed the site violated Zillow’s copyrights on photos and demanded that Wagner take down any that originated with the company.
“Zillow demands that You immediately (i) cease all access and use of the Zillow site; and (ii) delete all Images, and derivatives thereof, in Your possession and on Your site,” the letter reads.
Wagner’s supporters, including the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation, have flooded her with offers to help and with criticism of the action by the $8 billion, publicly traded Zillow.
“There’s been a big Internet response,” Wagner said. “It’s crazy to see the amount of support. I feel very loved as this all goes on.”
Zillow, caught in a media fiasco that portrayed it as the heavy in outlets from the Baltimore Sun to Buzzfeed to Architectural Digest, quickly started sending forth statements and spokespeople to paint the company in better light. One of them, Katie Curnutte, made public a literal “Dear Kate” letter Tuesday that followed a less touchy-feely statement a day earlier.
Curnutte’s letter described McMansion Hell as “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,” she wrote. “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.”
Zillow doesn’t have rights to many of the photo on its site and can’t give third parties permission to use them, Curnutte wrote.
Meanwhile, help for Wagner appeared near from the nonprofit EFF, which cites successful litigation against MGM, Sony BMG, and the federal government on electronic free speech issues.
“We are representing Kate Wagner and will be sending a detailed response to all of Zillow’s contentions soon,” EFF staff attorney Daniel Nazer said in a statement Wednesday. “We hope that Zillow comes to appreciate that it made a mistake and withdraws its threat.”
Wagner, who tweets at @mcmansionhell, says she’s having “as good a time as one can have while under threat of a lawsuit.” With a background in classical music performance, composition, electronic music, and sound architecture, she’s hoping to enter a career in architectural acoustics, the design of musical spaces. While at UNC-G she built her own electronic instruments and she’s had her compositions—including “I, Philip,” a tribute to Philip Glass—performed by a variety of ensembles.
Wagner hopes to restart McMansion Hell, the blog that provided her main means of support through Patreon, a web platform that allows musicians and writers to be paid. Wagner enjoyed almost a year of watching her audience grow and interact with her and with other visitors.
“Half of the posts are like ha-ha funny posts,” she said. “The posts I care about most are the information posts that talk about architecture in a lighthearted but not comical way.”