Apple suit foreshadows coming products

Company sues Mac enthusiast site and others, lending credibility to hot rumors surrounding product plans.

Tech Industry
In its latest lawsuit seeking to clamp down on leaks, Apple Computer has added credibility to several hot rumors, including plans to offer a cheaper Macintosh and its own line of office software.

Apple on Tuesday sued the publisher of Mac enthusiast site Think Secret and other unnamed individuals, alleging that recent postings on the site contain Apple trade secrets, according to court documents seen by CNET News.com.

The suit, filed Tuesday in the Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Calif., aims to identify who is leaking the information and to get an injunction preventing further release of trade secrets. However, in filing the suit, Apple identifies specific articles that contain trade secrets, indicating that at least parts of those reports are on the mark.

The lawsuit is the company's third intellectual-property suit in recent weeks. In other court cases, Apple is suing two men who it says distributed prerelease versions of Tiger, the next iteration of Mac OS X. In a separate action, it is suing unnamed individuals who leaked details about a forthcoming music device code-named Asteroid.

In the latter case, Apple won court permission to issue subpoenas to Think Secret and two other Mac enthusiast sites in an effort to ferret out who leaked the information.

Apple said in a statement to CNET News.com that the company's "DNA is innovation, and the protection of our trade secrets is crucial to our success."

"Apple has filed a civil complaint against the owner of ThinkSecret.com and unnamed individuals who we believe stole Apple's trade secrets," Apple said in its statement. "We believe that Think Secret solicited information about unreleased Apple products from these individuals, who violated their confidentiality agreements with Apple by providing details that were later posted on the Internet."

A Think Secret representative did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

In its suit, Apple specifically lists certain articles that contain confidential information, though it does not confirm which of the article's details are true. For example, when mentioning the report that Apple plans a "G4-based iMac without display," Apple says the article "disclosed numerous confidential details regarding the technical capabilities of Apple's unreleased computer product as well as Apple's confidential marketing plans."

Similar confirmation is offered regarding iWork, which Think Secret said on Dec. 31 would be a suite of office software combining the company's Keynote presentation program with a new document creation application called Pages. "The postings on Think Secret included detailed technical specifications and product code names," the lawsuit maintains. "Apple had maintained and protected this Future Product Information as trade secrets."

Apple also mentions articles that discussed updates to the company's iLife suite as having "disclosed various technical specifications regarding Apple's unreleased 'iLife '05' software product."

The suit illustrates the challenges Apple faces in trying to keep its products secret. In order to maintain trade secret protection, companies have to vigorously try to plug leaks. However, in trying to identify the leaks, Apple has at times lent credence to the rumors it wishes to squelch.

In August 2000, Apple sued to identify a tipster who had used the name "worker bee." Through subpoenas, Apple later identified the individual as an ex-contractor, Juan Gutierrez. But in its efforts to identify worker bee, Apple had to confirm that there was at least some truth to the rumors that he was posting--namely the details of a revision to the iBook laptop. Apple later released a laptop whose details matched worker bee's description.

In this week's suit, Apple notes the lengths it has gone to in trying to stop the leaks through Think Secret. The suit notes a number of letters that its lawyers have sent in recent years to Think Secret warning that the site's postings contain confidential trade secrets. In the letters, Apple demanded that the site remove all information on the products and that it provide "all information regarding the person or persons who supplied the trade secrets." Apple said the site's owners have ignored its demands.

Apple maintains that while others obtained the trade secrets that were leaked by Think Secret, the site engaged in "tortious interference" with the confidentiality agreements that Apple requires employees and contractors to sign. The suit is filed against site owner The dePlume Organization, as well as its owner, who uses the pseudonym Nick dePlume, whose real identity Apple has not determined.

"Although the dePlume defendants are aware that such information constitutes Apple trade secrets and is protected by Apple's confidentiality agreements, the dePlume defendants actively encourage and induce persons to provide future product information in breach of those agreements." The suit points specifically to a posting made after Apple's World Wide Developer Conference in June. "Think Secret's request stated, 'Did you hear something you weren't supposed to at WWDC? We appreciate your insider news and Mac gossip. E-mail us or use our anonymous e-mail form."

Apple seeks an injunction stopping further disclosure of trade secrets as well as unspecified damages from dePlume and those who aided in the publishing. It also seeks damages from the unnamed individuals who breached Apple's confidentiality agreement.

In the suit, Apple outlines the damage that leaks cause, noting that disclosures give competitors a head start and hurt the buzz created around its products. "Unauthorized disclosures diminish the interest of both the mainstream and trade media in the launch of a new product," Apple said.

Apple makes an effort in the lawsuit to say it is not trying to step on the First Amendment.

"By this action, Apple does not seek to discourage communication protected by the free-speech guarantees of the United States and California constitutions," Apple said in the suit. "These constitutionally protected freedoms, however, do not extend to defendants' unlawful practice of misappropriating and disseminating trade secrets acquired through the deliberate violation of known duties of confidentiality."

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