Computer maker Apple Inc. and a Harvard undergraduate who published confidential Apple information on his Internet site have settled a three-year legal dispute that made international headlines.
"This is an agreement that presents a positive solution for both sides," said Nicholas Ciarelli, a 22-year-old senior majoring in social studies and creator of the Think Secret website. Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said, "We are pleased to have reached this amicable settlement and are happy to have it behind us."
Terms of the settlement were confidential. But two key points were made public - Ciarelli did not reveal the sources for his controversial stories, but he did agree to shut down the website.
"That Think Secret does not go on after the settlement is the troubling part," said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. "Does this mean that bloggers can't do muckraking journalism?"
Ciarelli, an avid fan of Apple computers, created Think Secret at age 13, to publish news and rumors about the company's products. The site became a leading source of news among Apple fans.
In late 2004, Think Secret published information about a new miniature Apple computer, which was introduced in early 2005 as the Mac Mini. Apple, which had planned to keep the new product secret until its formal unveiling, sued Think Secret, claiming the site published trade secrets and solicited Apple employees to reveal those secrets illegally. The lawsuit was one of several Apple filed in 2005 against independent Internet journalists who reported leaked information about Apple products. In mid-2006, Apple abandoned its effort to force two other websites to reveal the names of those who had leaked company secrets.
But the case against Think Secret dragged on, even though no hearings were held. "Nothing has happened since 2005," said Terry Gross, Ciarelli's attorney. Gross said that Apple had continually sought delays in the case "because they knew they were going to lose."
But Palfrey said that Apple may actually have been in a good position to win the case. Palfrey said that journalists have no legal right to publish a company's trade secrets. "If in fact that was the purpose of his site, it's hard to defend that," Palfrey said.
Still, Palfrey hailed Ciarelli as a courageous journalist who protected his sources. "This is a young guy who stuck to his guns in the face of a lot of pressure," he said.
Ciarelli said he was more than ready to shut down the website. "I've been doing this since I was 13," he said. "For some time, I've been ready to move on."
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.