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ATPM 11.04
April 2005



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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Some Secrets Are There For Good Reason

I have read only a little bit about the court action Apple has taken against a rumors site. I read just enough to think I already know what is the right thing in the case. Not because I am an expert on law. Not because I am an Apple stockholder and I have an interest in the company making money. (I sold my shares a while back. At $37.50. I hear they are in the low 40s now, after a stock split when prices were in the 80s, but I won’t look.)

I think I have a line on what is right because there are some things that transcend business and law. I’ll explain it and you can see if you agree. It’s fine if you don’t. I am not out to convert anybody; this is just how it looks from here.

The trouble began when Think Secret published news of Apple products before they were introduced. The site gave pretty specific descriptions of the products; it seemed to Apple that someone inside the company had leaked the information rather than that the site’s operator was just very intuitive and a good guesser. Apple wanted to find out who was leaking the information, and said that California law backed them up. A company employee leaking secrets was violating a contract. The company says it has a right to protect trade secrets, because its business could be adversely affected if such secrets get out too early.

The particular item that got everybody riled up was that Think Secret published a description of the Mac mini two weeks before it was unveiled at the Expo. So, for two weeks, Mac buyers did not purchase other units because they were waiting for the Mini. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that knowledgeable Mac consumers do not buy anything right before the San Francisco Expo, because they know new stuff gets revealed then. I can’t think that Think Secret’s revelation stopped any new Mac buyers from getting on board right then.


I will argue that Think Secret is wrong to publish these kinds of stories. I have been a peripheral journalist since high school; I took a couple of classes in journalism ethics. I am all for freedom of the press, because it is necessary for journalists to be able to expose wrongs. But investigative journalism is to protect consumers from rogue companies, not to expose their legitimate trade secrets.

Here’s the argument: if there was nothing wrong with what Think Secret was doing, the guy who runs the site would just tell Apple who his source is. That’s it. That’s the argument. He is acting like he has something to hide because he does have something to hide, and so does his informant.

We instinctively know right and wrong, and when we do wrong, we try to cover it up. That is human nature. I don’t even need to explore the stuff about California trade secrets laws, or US Supreme Court rulings, because the behavior makes it obvious: legal or not, this is wrong.

Some stuff is supposed to be secret. If you don’t want to be in on a secret and not be able to tell it, don’t sign the contract. If you change your mind, tell your boss you want out. Be honest.

Mark Twain said if you always tell the truth, you never have to worry about keeping your stories straight. He didn’t mean to tell everything you know. Sometimes, when someone asks you if these pants make them look fat, it is OK to lie. Or you can say, “No, those pants don’t make you look fat. Your huge butt makes you look fat.”

See why being totally honest is a little dicey sometimes?

I’m kidding. Mostly I prefer total honesty, too. It is better than guessing. But this Apple employee who is leaking this stuff, that’s not about being honest. That’s about being sneaky, and feeling like they are putting something over on their bosses. That’s not good motivation. That’s not something to be proud of.

They could just choose to stop. There is still time to end this mess before it gets really ugly. Of course, it may be that Apple likes having its name in the press even as an aggrieved party. It is still publicity.

I’d rather have the good kind of publicity, the kind where they tell us they are selling gobs of iPods, and soon there will be a $500 laptop. Yeah. That’s a rumor I wouldn’t mind seeing.


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