What is a journalist?
A court in California may give us an answer next week. And I'll bet that it gets the answer wrong.
The case in question involves a writer (let's call him that for the moment) named Jason O'Grady who regularly pens a column called "The Apple Core" for ZDNet.com, run by Ziff Davis Media. He also has his own news blog, called PowerPage.org. He is one of many men and women in the tech sector who scratch together a living writing insider stuff -- rumors of new products, analysis of corporate announcements, product reviews and so forth. -- about electronics companies.
Most of these writers, though they pride themselves on their skepticism and snarky writing style, are essentially cheerleaders for the companies they cover. On the rare occasions when they publish leaks about new products, it is usually in a spirit of enthusiasm shared by their readers, not an attempt to damage the company in question.
That's why it came as shock last December when Apple Computer filed suit against defendants, all labeled "John Doe," in a Santa Clara, Calif., court charging them with leaking trade secrets -- then subpoenaed PowerPage and another Web site, AppleInsider -- demanding the names of those leakers. So who are John Doe and his 19 friends? Specifically, Apple went after the little Internet service provider that handles O'Grady's e-mail and Web hosting.
"A nice Christmas card from the company that I have loved and supported for years," said O'Grady in a plaint that he will likely come to regret someday.
What were the vital "trade secrets" that O'Grady put in his column? They dealt with an arcane Firewire breakout box, code named Asteroid, for Apple's GarageBand podcasting software product. Big freaking deal.
Apple, with 14,000 employees, $14 billion in sales and an army of lawyers, managed to dig up a judge, James P. Kleinberg, just down the road from me in Santa Clara County Superior Court. Kleinberg ruled with Apple, writing that Apple's interests in protecting its trade secrets outweighed the public interest in the information. Wrote Kleinberg: "Unlike the whistle-blower who discloses a health, safety or welfare hazard affecting all, or the government employee who reveals mismanagement or worse by our public officials [the enthusiast sites] are doing nothing more than feeding the public's insatiable desire for information." Yeah, like that's a bad thing.
Not suprisingly, and to its great credit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation stepped up and offered to pick up the tab to appeal the decision. The EFF's petition has also been supported by amicus briefs from a host of important legal commentators specializing in the Web -- including Eugene Volokh, blogger and law professor at UCLA; Jay Rosen, press critic and NYU professor; Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor and creator of Instapundit; and Scott Rosenberg, senior technology writer at Salon.com.
O'Grady is also getting support from The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the Society of Professional Journalists -- showing that, despite their protestations that bloggers aren't really journalists, when it comes down to freedom of the press, they are all on the same side.