Twenty Years Ago Today: Barbra Streisand Sued A Photographer And The Streisand Effect Was Born


from the happy-birthday-streisand-effect dept

Normally on Saturday we have our “this week in history” posts, highlighting Techdirt stories from many years ago. But this week I wanted to highlight a story that didn’t happen on Techdirt, but turned into a Techdirt thing. Twenty years ago today, actress/singer Barbra Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman for daring to photograph her coastal mansion as part of his (fascinating) project to photograph the entire west coast of the US from a helicopter to track erosion over time.

In 2002 this was an incredibly ambitious project by Adelman. It was before we all had widespread access to satellite imagery, and before the web worked the way it does today. Adelman set up a pretty incredible website which is still up today in all its 2002-era glory (though he has, as was part of the original plan, updated it with more modern photographs over time).

Either way, one of the thousands of photographs of the coastline include Barbara Streisand’s compound:

The aerial photo showing a large house perched atop a cliff overlooking a beach and the ocean.

And so, she sued on this day in 2003:

Image of the complaint caption, filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles. The case is Barbra Streisand against Kenneth Adelman,,, and Does 1 through 20.

You can see the five different claims, all variations on privacy or publicity rights violations (all of which were obviously ridiculous), and yet she demanded $10 million in damages for each claim, for a grand total of $50 million. For an aerial photograph of her home.

The rest, as they say, is history. Streisand sued, and in Adelman’s anti-SLAPP motion to try to get the case dismissed, he revealed that the photo of Streisand’s house had been viewed a grand total of six times, two of which were from Streisand’s own lawyers, and most of the rest appeared to be by Streisand herself and some neighbors:

Streisand alleges that "there is no telling how many people have downloaded the photograph of Plaintiff's property and residence . . . but the numbers could easily already be in the thousands." She is off by several orders of magnitude. In fact, during the previous three and one-half months before the complaint was served (the download interface was added to the website on February 14, 2003) the download interface was used for Image 3850 only six times (including two downloads by Streisand's own attorneys and perhaps others by Streisand or her neighbors). In contrast, during that same period the website had a total of 14,418 downloads. Similarly, before Streisand filed of this lawsuit, only three reprints of Image 3850 had been ordered - one by Streisand's neighbors with whom she is disputing her planned construction and two reprints by Streisand herself.

However, after the lawsuit was filed and the story hit the news, the photo received nearly half a million views. Oops.

One thing I learned in reviewing the details of this now, however, is that Streisand had tried to file the lawsuit under seal (which should not have been allowed anyway), but apparently her lawyers screwed up, and therefore it was unsealed, leading to the publicity.

We first wrote about Streisand suing on June 1st of 2003. On June 24th we wrote about how the photo of her house had become “an internet hit” because of the lawsuit. The whole thing became something of a joke that we and many in the Techdirt community would refer to often. Though, it was actually a year and a half later, on January 5th, 2005, that I named the concept the Streisand Effect in response to another silly legal threat (over a photograph of a urinal in a beach resort).

And then it kinda took off on its own. We mentioned it sometimes on Techdirt, and in 2007, Andy Greenberg (now at Wired, then at Forbes) wrote about it. In 2008, I got to go on NPR’s All Things Considered to talk to Robert Siegel about the concept.

So, while “The Streisand Effect” didn’t really go mainstream for about five years, it was 20 years ago today that Streisand took the fateful step that resulted in “The Streisand Effect” becoming a thing with an increasingly massive Wikipedia page (that I’ve never had anything to do with at all). There have been tons of articles on it. It even got me mentioned by the Merriam-Webster people which is truly a highlight of my life.

As for the case against Adelman, he didn’t just prevail: he won his anti-SLAPP motion, and Streisand had to pay his legal fees, which she eventually did:

Photograph of a check to Ken ADelman for $155,567.04.

Filed Under: barbra streisand, kenneth adelman, streisand effect, the streisand effect

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