A popular architectural humor blog has received a legal challenge from a well-funded online real estate giant, reports Buzzfeed. The case raises serious questions about parody, intellectual property, and the way information disseminates through the internet. It started with swipes at tacky houses.
In 2016, a graduate student named Kate Wagner launched a modest Tumblr blog called McMansion Hell, lampooning the excesses of shoddy-but-showy new constructions in America’s suburbs and exurbs. Beneath the snarky internet slang lay a scathing, insightful, and well-informed commentary on architecture, culture, and status anxiety in the era of subprime mortgages. Many readers who came for the jokes say they stayed for the theory and critique – Wagner’s comedy had point to make about what we build where and why.
Like stucco during a housing bubble, the blog suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Wagner appeared on the influential design podcast 99% Invisible, and then was profiled in larger media such as the Huffington Post and Business Insider. On the same day that a Washington Post piece massively increased her audience, she received a cease-and-desist letter from the leading house-hunting site Zillow, demanding that she remove all photos appropriated from Zillow listings. This would mean deleting a significant portion of the McMansion Hell archive.
The site went offline, and Wagner released a statement seeking legal help. The Electronic Frontier Foundation stepped in, and Wagner says she’s in the process of defending herself and bringing McMansion Hell back into view.
Zillow claims it’s not interested in the tone of McMansion Hell and has a responsibility to protect user-submitted photos from any unauthorized use. However, in targeting a humorist – Wagner clearly trafficks in mockery and not bootlegging – it has garnered a backlash from fans of the site and free-speech activists at large. Those who are interested in what our architecture says about us and the way we talk about it will be paying close attention.
– Emerson Dameron, A+D Press
– Photo Credit: Pexel