ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The McMansion Hell Dispute Was Really About Contracts

Zillow's cease-and-desist letter to popular Tumblr blog McMansion Hell --and its subsequent backing down from its position after the blogger secured representation from the Electronic Frontier Foundation --has been well-documented, including by such outlets as BBC News. However, a lot of outlets reported it as being a copyright dispute. While there was definitely a copyright angle to the disagreement--Zillow even alleged as such in its letter--the issue was really one of contract. After all, as many commentators pointed out, Zillow didn't even own the copyright in any of the photos. The true dispute, as Zillow conceded and EFF explained in its letter response, was over Zillow's terms of use. 

Zillow alleged that its terms of use prevented "reproducing, modifying, distributing, or otherwise creating derivative works from any portion of the Zillow site." Zillow seemed to be alleging that the blogger's parodies and commentaries of the photos on the site--otherwise easily protected by copyright's fair use doctrine--were prohibited by the terms of use. EFF fought back on this, though. EFF claimed that the blogger had never effectively assented to be bound by the website's terms of use, and that even if she had, the agreement's clause permitting modification without notice rendered the terms of use illusory and unenforceable. EFF also noted that contract doctrines have in the past restricted terms that restrict speech, at least in part due to public policy concerns. Finally, EFF raised the recently enacted Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, which voids contract provisions that attempt to prevent people from posting reviews, performance assessments, or other analyses of goods and services. The blogger's parodies of the real estate photographs on Zillow, according to EFF, are analyses of Zillow's services, and therefore Zillow cannot restrict them through its terms of use. 

Zillow backed off pretty quickly, claiming that it never intended to cause McMansion Hell to shut down, and McMansion Hell is back up, without having deleted any of the demanded photos. It seems like a victory for McMansion Hell and, more importantly, for individual speech. All of us spend a lot of time on websites with terms of use that we never bother to read. The quick reaction of many in the legal community to help McMansion Hell fight back, and the subsequent news coverage it received, is a nice reminder that not all contracts are automatically binding, especially not when criticism is involved. Hopefully other less high-profile recipients of dubious cease-and-desist letters can take heart from this story. 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/contractsprof_blog/2017/07/the-mcmansion-hell-dispute-was-really-about-contracts.html

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