Apple Watchers Get Jobbed

I am a staunch defender of freedom of the press and of the right of a journalist to protect the confidentiality of her sources. But as a creator of intellectual property, I also seek to protect IP from improper use. In a legal decision announced last month, a California court sided with Apple Computer when it ruled that three independent online reporters were not protected by the First Amendment because the product information they published, which Apple considered trade secrets, was obtained through the alleged criminal act of an Apple employee. The court did not pass judgement on whether a blogger can be considered a journalist, and thus afforded the same rights.

The issues here are complex and somewhat ironic. The defendants in this lawsuit are young, ranging in age from 19 to 22. It made me think of the young Steve Jobs and Bill Gates when they launched Apple and Microsoft at the tender ages of 21 and 20, respectively. Before long, Jobs was accusing Gates of stealing Apple’s graphical user interface. Gates reportedly defended against the suit by claiming they both “got” the GUI from Xerox PARC.

Since Jobs and Gates launched their companies—roughly 30 years ago—the very products they helped popularize, along with the widespread use of the Internet, have led to the broad dissemination of information, opinion and gossip. Secrets are harder to safeguard today, and businesses have learned the tough lessons of involuntary transparency: You can’t disperse only the information you want to. Bloggers are strongly influencing how “journalism” is conducted and how knowledge gets shared (see “Rise of the Blog,” page 54).

So how do corporations balance their need to protect IP while not attacking the very people who are most enthusiastic about their products (think music industry)? When interested parties want to know everything about your business, do you legally pursue those enthusiasts after a breach in your internal security? And for Apple specifically, is the fallout from all the chatter about IP rights and whether or not bloggers are journalists going to cause harm to the free-spirit image the company has always coveted?

Twenty years ago Apple launched its first lawsuit against Microsoft for violating its patents. Now it’s again taking legal action, but this time it is going after individuals no older than its founder was when he was “inspired” by the GUI design he witnessed during a tour of Xerox PARC in 1979. Small world.

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