Frustrations with the Houzz platform existed long before the IvyMark acquisition last month, but seem to have escalated ever since. On March 1, a group of designers introduced a petition outlining a list of demands of the platform, revolving around what they allege is inappropriate use of designers’ images. Some are suggesting the platform could be in danger of copyright infringement. As of this morning, the petition has garnered 1,920 signatures—its original goal was 1,600, and the designers have since upped their goal to 3,200 signatures.
Designers first took issue with Houzz when the platform started tagging their project photos with links to buy merchandise. The products for sale aren’t necessarily those that the designer originally used, but as the petition points out, “lower priced and inferior.” For many of these designers, it feels as though Houzz is using their own content against them.
Alon Cohen, Houzz founder, has reaffirmed the platform’s commitment to the trade. “We hear you on the tags that are displayed on photos. As a result, we’re making a change in the way photos are displayed and hiding the tags whenever a designer’s photos are displayed to homeowners in their local area. We hope that this, in addition to our partnership with Ivy, will help demonstrate our commitment to the needs of the trade,” he said in a statement after the Ivy acquisition.
Yet his assurances aren’t enough for some. Designers are organizing via closed Facebook groups including Interior Design Revolution and Interior Design Community. “By giving Houzz your clients, products and margins, what really prevents them from using that to sell directly to your clients, or even suggesting other designers who are paying more for better visibility on Houzz?” asks Laurie Laizure, founder of the popular IDC group and a petition collaborator.
Designers’ Demands, Houzz’s Response
Other petition collaborators include designers Rachel Waldron, owner of Waldron Designs, an architectural interior firm based in Vashon, Washington; Jennifer Michelle Hyman of Hyman Interiors; Melissa Frederiksen, owner of the Nashville firm Atmosphere 360 Studio; and Casee Burgason, of Casee Burgason Interior Design. It was penned by an unnamed but, as the collaborators say, “well-known design business strategist” and a “popular design coach.”
“This was extremely well thought-out,” says Laizure. The process of creating the petition took two weeks, she says, with the coordinators gathering “evidence,” contacting two copyright attorneys and compiling a timeline of events prior “formulat[ing] all of that into the petition.”
The petition makes a number of demands from the platform, including that Houzz stop selling products from designer images; that designers be allowed to remove their photography at any time; and that Houzz disallow third-party partners from using the designers’ photos (such as for ads or articles) without their permission. Other asks include allowing designers who opt out of using Houzz to be removed entirely from Houzz search results; permanently removing designers who don’t purchase advertising on Houzz from the platform’s call list; providing designers who do advertise on Houzz with analytics “proving that what they have paid for—namely higher billing in searches in their marketplace—is actually what they are receiving”; and obtaining permission from designers before using their photos in digital editorial content.
Addressing these concerns starts with clearing up the misperceptions, says Liza Hausman, vice president of industry marketing at Houzz. “Every pro that advertises on Houzz has access to analytics right in their profile,” she says. In addition, those who advertise are assigned a customer success manager who performs regular analytics calls to review the data. “We show them the exposure and activity that they’re getting organically, as well as what they’re getting in the paid program, so they can clearly compare the two,” she says.
For those who’d prefer Houzz stay off their phone lines, Hausman advises making a verbal request. “If any professional tells us they don’t want to be contacted about advertising, we remove them from our list. Often, folks don’t answer the phone or give that feedback, but if they make that request, then absolutely they are removed and not called,” she says.
But once you’re on the platform, it is difficult to get off. That is largely because Houzz views itself, in part, as a modern Yellow Pages, providing business listings regardless of whether designers opt in to sharing additional details, such as their portfolios. “If you were to go to the Yellow Pages or any other directory, you want to see that someone is in business,” Hausman says. “So if somebody doesn’t want to have a profile and showcase their work and engage with the community, they can certainly do that. We just usually recommend that they put a message there that says, ‘Feel free to visit my website and contact me there.’” Designers can remove their profiles—but all of their uploaded photos, including any that have been saved in User Ideabooks or featured in Editorial Ideabooks—will remain.
The photography issue is a loaded one. “We follow the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) practices if they want to take something down,” says Hausman. “In terms of who owns the copyrights to the photo, that should be in the contract between the designer and their photographer.” If there is a copyright concern, Hausman says the user should write to Houzz.
A quick legal debrief: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects a passive website host from from incurring liability if copyright infringement occurs on its site. In this case, “passive” refers to an internet service provider (ISP) that allow users to freely upload and share content without the site itself reviewing the content’s legality or ethical value, or charging a premium for the service. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are some examples of such hosts. Should the website become aware of any copyright infringement, the DMCA requires that the material is removed, and that the host implements ways to detect future infringement.
DMCA is specifically focused on material that infringes copyright. Houzz's internal terms claim the rights to photos, which users agree with upon upload. But if it infringes copyright—and designers notify Houzz of that—DMCA policy requires the host to remove it as soon as they’re notified. Read more here.
Same Problems, New Solutions
Designers’ main gripe might be boiled down to this: They feel the value of the interior design profession isn’t being accurately communicated. Melissa Frederiksen has been on Houzz since about 2012, but has grown frustrated of late, particularly with the tagged photos. She stopped advertising on the platform and also took down 75 percent of the portfolio photos she had uploaded. In one case, she says, a fellow Houzz forum user had requested the plans for her custom furniture, and became angry when she priced the plans at $1,000. “We become kind of like Pinterest. 'Look at the pretty picture—I want that!’ Not knowing that it may not work for you.”
It’s a competitor comparison that Hausman would contest. “We work harder than any other site to maintain the connection between designer and their work,” she says. “With photos on Houzz, you can’t right-click and save them to your desktop, you can’t try to save them to another website—they’re pretty protected.” Each photo also includes attribution and a link to the designer’s profile. Says Hausman: “We’ve always tried very hard to make sure that if somebody finds a designer photo, they can find and contact that designer.”
Hausman affirms that product tags are nothing new. “Providing product information with photos in the form of tags has been a part of our platform since the very early days,” she says. As Cohen initially mentioned in his post-acquisition statement, Hausman says, “One way we’ve addressed designer feedback is by turning off tags when homeowners in a designer’s metro area are viewing the photos. Designers, and all professionals, still have the ability to tag their own photos with actual product information. We work hard every day to provide a great experience and meet the needs of everyone in our community, which includes home professionals, homeowners, brands and vendors.”
Rachel Waldron, who founded the Facebook group Interior Design Revolution and worked on the current petition, says her goal is “to harness the anger and energy to do something good for our industry. We have been misused, abused and misrepresented as a community for too long, and this acquisition showed blatant disrespect to the industry.” That anger is shared by the petition’s signers, who claimed in the open letter: “Your founders have boasted that Houzz has a  billion-dollar valuation, but that was built on our backs using our creative work (see Spotify for why that’s a problem for you). And now the same thing is happening with Ivy. We do not want Houzz to have access to our private accounts, to the ‘inside information’ for how we run our businesses. Because we do not trust you.”
Is Houzz’s response too slow to counter the anger being generated in groups like Waldron’s? What the platform has learned, over time, is that an overnight reaction won’t create long-term benefits. There’s no one-one-size-fits-all strategy in the design industry, points out Hausman, and Houzz is focused on building a platform that will benefit all segments of its user base, from designers to homeowners to manufacturers, in the long run.
“To help designers, we need to focus our efforts on building programs and features that can make a meaningful, positive impact on designers’ businesses and lives and that will also be sustainable given how the industry works today,” she says. “A protectionist strategy is a difficult situation. We want to do positive things that are going to invest in their businesses and give them something substantive. We need to create new solutions, because the industry isn’t going to go back to the way it was five to 10 years ago. We can’t make e-commerce go away, so how do we make it work for designers?”
Laizure remains skeptical of the platform’s upcoming plans. “We all wonder where Houzz will pivot next. Will they offer free or reduced cost design services?” she asks. “One thing is for sure: Their loyalty is to their users and not designers.”