During this holiday week, we bring you a recent legal story that set off fireworks around freedom of expression.
As reported by multiple media outlets, Zillow, a well-known real estate site, threatened McMansionHell.com, a popular blog that cleverly takes the architecture of oversized houses to task, over alleged copyright violations.
Kate Wagner, a graduate student studying acoustics at John Hopkins University, started the blog for a few friends. A self-proclaimed architecture buff, she used the blog to explain why certain mansions were an eyesore, in a witty way, using architectural terms. As of late, the blog gained popularity and readers.
Wagner sources images from Zillow for her critiques. When Zillow finally took notice — or exception — they sent a cease-and-desist letter and demanded that Wagner remove the images from her site. The letter stated that Wagner did not have permission to use the images and that its third-party contracts prohibited her from doing so. The Chicago Tribune reported that the company also implied that by using the photos, Wagner could violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Clearly rattled, Wagner temporarily took her site down and put the call out for legal help on Twitter. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal advocacy group, responded.
Again per the Tribune, EFF lawyers sent Zillow a letter on Wagner’s behalf, which called the company’s claims “frivolous and unsupportable.”
“[The letter] claimed that Zillow had no right to accuse Wagner of breaching business contracts she was not a party to. And, it said, the site’s terms of service could not be enforced against Wagner because of another recently enacted law, the Consumer Review Fairness Act, that legally shields individuals who share their ‘honest opinions’ about a business online.”
EFF’s letter also contained a potential counter-suit should Zillow continue with its accusations of Wagner.
In response to the letter and the social media outrage, the “Internet villain” quickly backed down. Zillow stated it was never their intent for Wagner to shut the site down or for their legal action to come across as an attack on her freedom of expression. They were merely acting out of an abundance of caution to protect their partners.
In her July 3 post, Wagner briefly apologized for the “drama” to her surely greater number of readers and quickly returned to the “regularly scheduled content.”