In a reversal of Apple Computer’s traditional stance as a hip, cool company supportive of student technology endeavors, Apple is suing Harvard University student Nicholas Ciarelli’s web site, www.ThinkSecret.com, alleging it illegally published company trade secrets. The Jan. 4 lawsuit also targets the web site’s unnamed sources for the leaks.

Ciarelli, whose identity as the site’s publisher and editor was published only this week, is not named as a defendant. But he says he hopes to find free or low-cost legal help to argue that he deserves First Amendment protection and used proper newsgathering techniques to break news about the Mac mini computer and other inside information about Apple. (See “Apple unveils two bare-bones devices“.)

Harvard student Nicholas Ciarelli, who broke news about two Apple products before they were released, has been publishing a controversial web site about the company since he was 13 years old. (Associated Press photo)

“A lot of lawyers are interested in my case, but few are able to do it for free or low cost,” Ciarelli, of Cazenovia, N.Y., said in an eMail interview with the Associated Press (AP). “I’m seeking representation.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group, said on Jan. 24 it would not defend Think Secret, even though it is defending two other sites, AppleInsider.com and PowerPage.org, that Apple is trying to subpoena to reveal sources. Unlike the Think Secret case, those sites are not being sued.

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  • “In addition to being subpoenaed for sources, [Ciarelli is] being directly sued for trade secret misappropriation,” said Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney with the organization. “We’re trying to find him counsel.”

    Ciarelli, who described himself as “an enthusiastic fan of Apple’s products since an early age,” started www.ThinkSecret.com in 1998 when he was 13. The site, which accepts advertising, is read by Apple enthusiasts and industry analysts because of its exclusive stories about company developments.

    On Dec. 28, the web site published an article, citing “highly reliable sources,” that revealed details of an inexpensive, bare-bones Mac mini computer that would be priced at $499–two weeks before the Mac mini was unveiled at Apple’s MacWorld conference.

    Another Think Secret story on Jan. 6 correctly predicted Apple’s rollout at that show of a $149, 1-gigabite flash-memory version of the company’s popular iPod music player. The web site got some of the details wrong, however, citing sources suggesting Apple would also offer a 2-gigabyte version for $199.

    In a statement Jan. 14, Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple said the web site “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.”

    Apple declined to answer questions about whether Ciarelli, who called himself Nick dePlume online instead of using his real name, would also be sued.

    Ciarelli’s identity as the site’s editor and publisher had circulated recently on the internet, but the information became widely known only on Jan. 12, when The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, confirmed it.

    The Think Secret case is the third intellectual-property lawsuit that Apple has filed recently. Apple also sued two men who allegedly distributed pre-release copies of an upcoming version of Apple’s Mac OS X software, as well as unnamed individuals for allegedly leaking details about a future and as yet-unannounced music product, code-named Asteroid.

    At the MacWorld show, Apple executives told AP the company is merely defending itself.

    “Innovation is what Apple is all about, and we want to continue to innovate and surprise and delight people with great products, so we have a right to protect our innovation and secrecy,” said Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing.

    Links:

    Think Secret
    http://www.ThinkSecret.com

    Apple Computer Inc.
    http://www.apple.com