Apple lawsuit: Thinking different?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says Steve Jobs is about to leave a big blot on what was an amazing legacy.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
Such has been my dilemma, watching Steve Jobs operate over the years, that I still don't know whether to applaud or boo.

That he is one hell of a talented guy is a statement that goes beyond contestation. But how then do you account for his company's bizarre decision to go to war with the Fourth Estate? That's the gist of an Apple Computer lawsuit that is bound to ignite a First Amendment donnybrook.

The real subtext is this: Apple is directed by a collection of control freaks who would have found themselves at home in the Nixon White House. The big difference here being that reporters had the constitutional protection to report on the Nixon White House.
Just before noon Friday, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge cleared the way for Apple to subpoena Think Secret, Apple Insider and PowerPage to find out who leaked the Mac maker's product plans. Apple sued the three Mac enthusiast sites, arguing they do not deserve the same free speech protections as "legitimate press," and the judge agreed.

"Defining what is a 'journalist' has become more complicated as the variety of media has expanded," Judge James Kleinberg wrote in his 13-page decision. "But even if the movants are journalists, this is not the equivalent of a free pass. The journalist's privilege is not absolute."

Tricky area. Few would argue that there are limits to that privilege, but this decision opens a Pandora's box. The judge argued that nothing in his ruling was meant to stifle the free exchange of opinions and speculation. But then he went on to interpret California's Shield Law as affording only limited protection--a decision that can only hurt the ability of news gatherers to do their jobs.

My hunch is that every crack First Amendment attorney in the country will want a piece of this appeal. If this decision stands, they know this would be bad news in bells for a free press.

Apple contended this was a case of the misappropriation of "trade secrets" under California law. Kleinberg went along, but it was a phony argument from the get-go. The leaks hit the Internet a couple of weeks in advance of Apple's planned announcements. What's more, the information that triggered Apple's hissy fit was imprecise, and the biggest "news" leak had to do with price.

The real subtext is this: Apple is directed by a collection of control freaks who would have found themselves quite at home in the Nixon White House. The big difference being that reporters had the constitutional freedom to report on the Nixon White House.

Apple has been an infuriating company for me to cover over the last two decades or so. I adore its technology but can't stomach

If this decision stands, that will be bad news in bells for a free press.
its overreaching sense of entitlement. Other tech companies deal with leaks all the time. Nobody's happy when their discussions wind up as fodder for the rumor mill. But that's part of the give-and-take that's defined the technology business for decades.

So why turn this into a federal case--(well, state case -- but you get the point.) People who know the company say that "everything starts with Steve."

For good and for bad.

Jobs had already secured a place in the annals of tech by co-founding Apple. Then he defied the odds when he returned to Apple in late 1996 and saved the day. And if that were not enough, the guy went on to build Pixar into one of the hottest movie animation companies--all in his spare time.

Loyalists say he accomplished all this by being a demanding perfectionist. But he didn't compile a resume of achievement by being Mr. Nice Guy. Forget the fluff PR adorning the company's advertisements. Jobs knows how to play hardball with the best of them.

But now you have to ask whether paranoia has trumped good judgment. With today's ruling, Jobs is in danger of leaving a big black blot on an otherwise remarkable legacy.