The 23-year-old blogger who received a cease-and-desist order from Zillow has retained lawyers working pro bono, and she hopes her website will go back live this week.

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UPDATE JUNE 29, 2017: Zillow backs off threat to sue McMansion Hell after compromise


Zillow is dealing with a PR fiasco and a potential legal fight for going after a small, popular blog that makes fun of McMansions.

Kate Wagner — who spotlights large, ugly-looking houses on — received a cease-and-desist letter from the Seattle company this week, telling her to stop using Zillow photos on her site. She often makes memes out of Zillow home listing photos, pointing out features of home exteriors and rooms that are not exactly likely to win architecture awards.

“First of all, I was petrified,” said Wagner, a 23-year-old master’s student in Baltimore, who is working on a thesis on architectural acoustics. Zillow’s letter said Wagner ran afoul of Zillow’s terms of use and may violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and state laws. “It’s pretty terrifying when someone issues you a letter saying you’re a criminal and you’re going to jail.”

The internet backlash to the letter has been swift since Wagner posted it to the blog’s Twitter account on Monday. The vast majority of commenters have defended the tiny blog against the real estate giant, and some lawyers have given legal advice or suggestions online.

Wagner said Tuesday she received emails from about 200 lawyers, and has retained the Electronic Frontier Foundation to represent her, pro bono. They plan to respond to Zillow soon.

Outside Zillow’s headquarters in downtown Seattle on Tuesday morning, someone plastered the walls with many colorful signs reading “MCMANSION HELL FOREVER.”

Wagner said she took down the site’s public presence for maintenance and archiving this week — but she expects it to be back up soon, likely by Saturday.

Still, she said the exact nature of the content could depend on what advice her legal team gives her. Many of her old posts would need to be deleted if she complies with Zillow’s request.

Zillow was clearly taken aback by the PR backlash to the saga, which has been making the rounds on national and local news sites for the last 24 hours.

Zillow’s top public affairs person, vice president Katie Curnutte, sent Wagner an email Tuesday morning that struck a much friendlier tone. She started by acknowledging Zillow has received several questions from journalists about the initial letter from Zillow’s legal team.

“I understand why — your blog is well-loved by its many fans,” Curnutte said.

She thanked Wagner for taking down photos from the site — which remained offline as of Tuesday evening — and said the company’s intention wasn’t to shut her down.

“We hope you will be able to resume your writing and find other sources for photos,” Curnutte told Wagner.

Curnutte said in her email to Wagner that Zillow doesn’t own the rights to most of the photos on its site — it licenses them from other groups, like brokerages and multiple listing services, that want to see their home listings on Zillow’s well-trafficked website. In that sense, Zillow is uncomfortable acting as a middle-man for people like Wagner to use photos that were copyrighted by photographers and realtors.

The company is already in the middle of a legal battle on another photo copyright issue and may owe millions of dollars in damages to a real estate photography firm.

Zillow spokeswoman Emily Heffter said that if other sites start publishing photos from Zillow, it could become harder for Zillow to obtain listings from realtors, which provide them under an agreement that only Zillow can use them.

“If we were to back off this, and everyone started taking photos off our site and using them, we’d have a lot of trouble getting photos for our site,” Heffter said. “When you make a deal with someone, you have to hold up your end of it.”

“It’s nothing personal,” she added.

Generally, people who use copyrighted media without permission hope to be protected under the fair use legal doctrine. Courts determine fair use exemptions on a case-by-case basis, though works of criticism and comment are specifically called out in the law as potentially qualifying for fair use exemptions. Zillow’s letter argues the site doesn’t meet the fair use doctrine.

Wagner’s lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement: “We hope that Zillow comes to appreciate that it made a mistake and withdraws its threat.”

Wagner has a disclaimer on the site that she does not own the photos.

She says she has earned about $24,000 from the blog since it started a year ago, and it is her primary source of income while she gets her master’s.

“I’m not, like, making bank here,” she said. “It’s enough to pay my rent and eat and go to grad school.”