Virtuality with David Schultz

Virtuality: the nexus between the virtual and the real, the place where the virtual becomes real and reality becomes virtual, a matrix of appearances.

Adobe and Law & Order on the Mac Web

June 15, 2000 - David Schultz

Well, it's finally happened. And in a sense, we warned you. In Beta Than Nothing I said that many times beta testers and developers sign or agree to nondisclosure agreements when testing and developing software. I said then to consider this when you see pics and stories of unreleased software on rumor sites. Something was bound to come down soon. A simple prediction.

Now, a very big company, namely Adobe is going after MacNN, which runs AppleInsider. You know about MacNN-AppleInsider, don't you? They were the leaders of the Pismo and 17" iMac fiasco and idiocy at Macworld Expo in January. That should have been enough for most to stop visiting both sites, even when one has "News" in its title. But we'll hyphenate so you don't get confused.

I want to use this incident to motivate a larger discussion of issues which the Mac web needs to start talking about openly. The Mac Web needs to step up to the plate like a man and do the right thing. Does it have the guts? We'll see.

Adobe Legal Acting Fast

Anyway, MacNN-AppleInsider posted a story with screen shots on Photoshop 6.0. Adobe asked for it to be taken down. MacNN-AppleInsider refused. Or rather, MacNN-AppleInsider says that Adobe called them on May 30 and asked that it be taken down within twenty minutes, and MacNN-AppleInsider said they would "look into it." What? Look into what?

Anyway, Adobe threatened. MacNN-AppleInsider didn't remove the story. Acting fast, on May 31 Adobe Systems Inc. v. Macintosh News Network, 00-20596 was filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA.

Gee whiz, why didn't MacNN-AppleInsider break that story? They both knew about it long before we did. Don't tell me they are selective? Do tell! If this is settled out of court, I lay down this challenge to MacNN-AppleInsider: Publish the settlement! Make it front page - or would that not be in the "public domain"? (See below?) 10 to 1 they don't.

Adobe requested that MacNN-AppleInsider cease disclosing trade secrets and has asked for damages in the "tens of millions of dollars." Adobe claims that in fact the information that MacNN-AppleInsider released about Photoshop 6.0 was confidential information, information which competitors would like to know. According to Law.com, the suit is interesting because the information was released by someone outside of Adobe. They say, "Specifically, Adobe says the online publication obtained a copy of the detailed feature guide for the products and included blocks of text verbatim in its previews." Oops! Can you say "corporate spying"?

Monish Bhatia of MacNN-AppleInsider insists that the information was in the "public domain." Yet Bhatia has yet to provide a link for this - and probably won't until on the stand. Any "public domain" is going to end up being a news group or Hotline, or one of their hidden sources, which goes to show the kind of company this "news" organization keeps. The use of the phrase "public domain" is laughable. Public domain relates to copyright and fair use, both of which were violated by the story and which news groups regularly ignore. Heck, I can find plans for pipe bombs in this "public domain."


Personally, and I speak for myself, not Low End Mac or anyone else, so I am going to let loose here: MacNN-AppleInsider's ego got just a bit too big, it seems. They failed to realize that it was not mom and pop calling and asking that the story be removed, but Adobe Inc. MacNN-AppleInsider may have thought they were bigger than Adobe, or Adobe must not have impressed them as any kind of threat. Oh, the sin of pride. . . .

Anyway, they are just a web site, just a site that has an email link for "rumors" and publishes what is thrown its way. It is not a news organization. Lets get that straight. It is Jerry Springer and "The National Inquirer" all wrapped into one. It's just a web site, and when compared to Adobe, a multimillion dollar company, it shrinks to its real size. You see, like it or not, with all the talk of ecommerce, traditional main street companies are still where the real business is. Ecommerce is still in a transitional phase. Sure, some have made a fortune on the Internet, but Adobe is a concrete business with business plans, well-respected products, large legal teams and stock holders. It's not the second thought of some college computer science major who has a web host for $19/month and $999 Compaq with a 56K modem who knows nothing about journalism standards.

Why This Had to Happen

As I said, I virtually anticipated this in my last column. It was easy: Sooner or later an NDA (nondisclosure agreement) was to be broken against a large company with serious lawyers, lots and lots of money, and stock holders interested in one thing: profits. This case, if it goes to court, could spell the end for rumor sites as we know them and could affect the Mac Web in many ways we have only begun to think about. (Read again, "if it goes to court.") I am rather new to the Mac Web and cannot recall whether this kind of action has been taken before by such a large and well-known company like Adobe. I know Apple's legal team is rather active, as we all do. But if it works itself out in the courts, it could bring the Mac Web to reality, something it desperately needs.

Let me explain.

The immature nature of the Web, and the Mac Web in particular, virtually preordained this, as do the kinds of actions Apple Legal engages in. The Web, right now, is a Wild West (thanks to an early article by Charles W. Moore for this metaphor). Rules don't apply. It's a gunslinging, dust covered outpost for explorers. It's play and discovery as much as business.

It lacks standards - professional standards, that is. It lacks a code of ethics. It lacks peer review of articles and stories. Deals are made through ICQ; nothing is written. Email is the only evidence of a promise, and the current White House email problems shows what can go wrong with this.

It's sloppy out there, believe me. The Wild Wild Web is a place for people who don't keep clean schedules and have soccer games for the kids. I speak of those who are really into it. Time is of the essence: Get the story out and get it out now! (We see the same thing on the 24/7 news channels.) Anyone can write an article. Anyone can post an opinion. Anyone can say whatever he wants to say. Right? Think again.

The Wild Wild Web is being tamed. Lawsuits and Congress are making sure of it. It's also the nature of Law, and I use this term in the most abstract sense. Law is a constraint, an external constraint, on human nature, because human nature itself either lacks a law or the one it has is spoiled. Law brings order to things. It rights wrongs. Its sets guidelines and limits free action. It places rules on the game. It sets boundaries and borders where there were none.

Keep in mind I am speaking of the abstract nature of law, not law as it is seen in our courts or in a movie like "The Rainmaker." I mean the most general concept of law. When you realize this, you see how lawless the Web is. I mean this, too, in an abstract sense.

We don't like law. It's something about our nature. That's why we cheer, literally, in the movies for the bad guys. Thinks about it. People pull for those who get away with it, whatever "it" is. They beat the system in the same ways we wish we could. We don't like law sometimes. Christian theology teaches that law cannot constrain us at all, and that we rebel against it. Where the law failed, Christ succeeded, is the story. The point is that external constraint will always be superficial; as long as constraint is constraint, it is hollow. When constraint turns to character and internal moral motives, there is nothing that can stop the law "written on our hearts."

The point for the Mac Web is that law will try to do its part, and it will make a difference, but unless we change ourselves first, it makes no difference.

The Mac Web is disorderly and lawless, to say the least. It lacks constraint, borders, boundaries, and rules. Like I said, it's sloppy. Yet I happen to believe in the "invisible hand" of capitalism: It looks sloppy and disorderly, but human nature, grounded in self-interest and the fact that sooner or later people avoid what is against their self-interest, will find out what works, what is best. The human desire for quality as well as self-preservation drives competition. Order and quality will emerge out of this disorder.

It will happen on the Web sooner or later. It has to. It's a law of nature, or human nature, or whatever you want to call it. Adobe's is just an incarnation of this abstract regulation. If a site like MacNN-AppleInsider thinks it can do whatever it wants because it's on the web, the law of nature has responded, "No you can't." This holds true even if the case is settled out of court or dropped. The message has been sent. Nature and universal law has spoken.

A Solution?

Short of religious conversion, what the Mac Web needs is a code of ethics which sites voluntarily adopt. Sites need to get serious about their business. Some sites do this already. There are quality sites out there. They mind their own business. They go about their work in serious and professional ways. They don't try to race to the finish line before everyone else, leaving a trail of journalistic mistakes in their wake.

What the Mac Web needs is a set of guidelines and standards, at least the opinion and news sites need this. Maybe sites should adopt something like the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. If a site prides itself on its journalism, then the least it can do is adopt a professional code. It would have stopped some of the mistakes sites make in their Mac predictions.

For example, the SPJ's Code states the following:

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:
  • Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
  • Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
  • Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
  • Always question sources' motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
  • Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
  • Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
  • Avoid misleading reenactments or staged news events. If reenactment is necessary to tell a story, label it."

Think about this. Testing accuracy, exercise care in avoiding inaccuracy; identify sources where feasible, "the public is entitled to as much information as possible on a sources' reliability," "always question sources' motives before promising anonymity." I doubt these are followed on some rumor or "news" sites. In fact, I know they are not.

I and others will be talking about adopting a code of ethics for the Mac Web in the near future. I will do so in an article at Applelust.com within the next few days (see A Mac Web code of ethics: Foundations). I am serious about this. It's about time we raise the standards on the Mac Web, and a Mac Web Code of ethics is the place to start. LEM

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