Topic: Business & Commercial Society

Steve Wozniak
(March 2005)

Hope reigns at the Ethics Scoreboard. After a January in which Ethics Heroes were nowhere to be found, February 2005 has spewed forth its third hero, an Ethics Scoreboard record.

This time it is Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He has bravely thrown his name and influence behind a hapless student who violated a non-disclosure agreement by letting a file-sharing web site, BitTorrent, get its cyber-hands on a version of Apple’s new Tiger operating system.

Wozniak has urged Apple to drop its lawsuit against 23-year old student Vivek Sambhara, a beta tester who last year leaked a version of the company’s yet-to-be-released next generation operating system. He also says he’ll contribute $1000 to Sambhara’s legal fund. (Note to Steve: Next time, either forget the cash offer or make it count. Most reports have Sambhara saying that he needs a $7,500 retainer for his defense. $1,000 sounds pretty half-hearted for someone with your resources. Are you interested in making a gesture or really helping the kid out?)

Sambhara is one of three named individuals and 25 "John Does" sued by Apple for making a pre-release of Tiger (Build 8A294) available via BitTorrent. Note that they didn’t leak hardware or any secret marketing strategy. What they did do is well phrased by Mac programmer / developer Jason Harris on the DrunkenBlog site, who says "They leaked a build of an operating system that has already had all of its features publicly announced – in fact, they’re all viewable by the general public on Apple’s web pages. In fact, any member of the general public can pay $500 to get into Apple’s "Early Adopter" program and get a copy of their own, legally."

Still, there is no question that Sambhara was in the wrong. He made a deal and signed an agreement, and knowingly or not, he violated the terms of the deal. Apple has a right to take action. But the "exemplary damages" sought by Apple involve thousands of dollars in damages that will cost thousands of dollars to fight in court. This strikes Wozniak as cruel and unusual punishment, and he has a valid point

Certainly that is the impression one gets from reading the interview Sambhara gave in 2004 to the blog "," in which he explained how his actions came about, or at least explained sufficiently for the people who understand Advanced Computerese, web jargon, and assorted technical gobbledygook.

Does this mean that Ethics Scoreboard is in favor of letting bygones be bygones when people violate agreements and jeopardize a corporation’s intellectual property? No. And it doesn’t mean that one should condemn Apple for seeking to make an example out of Sambhara, who was careless when he had accepted Apple’s trust, and whose mistake could cost the company and its stockholders a lot of money. But even corporations should be capable of mercy, forgiveness and a sense of proportion. Setting out to visit financial ruin on a 23 year-old student who sought no profit and derived no benefit from the breach of his agreement is an egregious over-reaction, and great credit goes to Wozniak for recognizing it. Sambhara and his fellow defendants aren’t blameless, and Apple has a legitimate grievance. But in ethics, size does matter. A monster corporation seeking to crush a single individual who intended no harm cannot be justified.

Let’s hope Wozniak carries some weight in Apple’s legal department. Meanwhile, for remembering kindness when everyone else is seeking retribution, he’s a worthy Ethics Hero.

[Special thanks to Michael Jordan for alerting the Scoreboard to this story.]

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