Attempt to suppress can backfire

David Canton – For the London Free Press – November 5, 2005

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An attempt to suppress something will sometimes cause more harm than good by bringing more attention to it.

It is important to understand and consider one’s legal rights when someone does something that offends you or your business.

It is also important to think through the options for redress and whether some of those options might backfire.

The “Streisand effect” is what happens when someone tries to suppress something and the opposite occurs. The act of suppressing it raises the profile, making it much more well known than it ever would have been.


The name — coined by TechDirt — came from a story that surfaced when an environmentalist taking photographs of the entire California coastline to track erosion took a photo of Barbra Streisand’s house. The photo was one of 12,000 posted on the Internet.

Streisand claimed the picture violated anti-paparazzi laws and demanded it be taken offline. She sued, claiming $10 million US in damage.

Few people would have cared about the uninteresting shot of the coastline had Streisand not reacted to the photo. Instead, her actions caused a whirlwind of media coverage and gave mass exposure to the photo.

A similar thing happened to FedEx when it threatened legal action to shut down the website of a young man creating home furnishings out of FedEx boxes.

Jose Avila, a computer programmer from Arizona, was unable to afford furniture for his new apartment. He decided to pursue an unusual and innovative solution to his problem by designing and building home furniture for himself using nothing but FedEx boxes and supplies.

Pleased with his work, the computer programmer decided to create a website dedicated to his work.

FedEx was not amused and sent Avila letters demanding he take down his website and threatened a lawsuit.

The company claimed the website was infringing on its trademark and copyright. Avila simply posted the FedEx letters on his site — resulting in more attention.

The website exploded into a mass of news and media coverage — little of it sympathetic to FedEx.

The Streisand and FedEx cases are examples of attempts to suppress something that do nothing but bring more attention to the issue. That result is completely opposite to the intended one.

From a pure legal perspective, if someone violates your rights in print or on the Internet, it may be possible to force the behaviour to stop.

Before choosing what action to take, one should be aware of the possibility that the process of trying to suppress someone or something may backfire tremendously.

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