Judge delays decision on Apple trade secrets case

California judge says he's likely to force Mac enthusiast sites to give up their confidential sources.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Lawyers for Apple Computer and a trio of Mac enthusiast Web sites met in court here Friday in a case that could have wide-ranging implications for the future--and even the definition--of online journalism.

Apple is seeking the right to subpoena the e-mail providers of three Mac-focused sites that published information documenting details of future Apple products. The company says that information was stolen, and is seeking legal action against employees who leaked the data. But it says it needs the Web sites' sources in order to identify the employees.

A California state judge issued a tentative ruling late Thursday that would give Apple the go-ahead to pursue that information from the Web sites' Internet service provider, but the judge did not issue a final decision at Friday's hearing.

Lawyers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing several of the Apple-themed Web sites, say allowing Apple to force the sites to divulge their sources, or forcing the sites' e-mail providers to give up records of their e-mails, would be deeply destructive to journalists' ability to cover business.

"Apple is saying that trade secrets are an exception to reporters' privileges," said EFF attorney Kurt Opsahl. "If trade secrets are an exception, then a business writer should be concerned every time he or she gets a tip in their e-mail box."

Even apart from Apple's attempts to keep its own product releases under uniquely tight wraps, the case involves far-reaching issues over how much right journalists have to publish private information about businesses, and indeed what journalism itself is in the era of digital media.

EFF attorneys note that the publications in the case, PowerPage, Apple Insider and ThinkSecret, all have wide readership and have been given press credentials in the past. But Apple attorneys refer to the publications' editors as "so-called" journalists, and questioned whether the Web sites should be given traditional reporters' protections.

"There was no journalism here," Apple attorney George Riley said in court. "They were simply fencing stolen information by publishing it verbatim."

Friday's hearing represented just a preliminary stage in the case. Apple is attempting to find the identity of the people who leaked the information originally and says subpoenaing the Web sites and their Internet service providers is the only way to ascertain that information. To date, the publications themselves have not been sued.

Judge James Kleinberg said he would consider both sides' arguments and rule as soon as possible. Attorneys said they expected a ruling by early next week.

 

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