Yesterday, the tech journalism world was abuzz with the news that tech blog Gizmodo had somehow come into possession of an iPhone prototype, and was publishing pictures of the device and what it could glean about its hardware and software specifications. As the day progressed, speculation moved from the device itself to the circumstances under which Gizmodo acquired the device. Gizmodo is keeping key elements of the story to itself, but a few things have been revealed:
- Publisher and Gawker media founder Nick Denton engaged in “checkbook journalism,” paying an unnamed party some $5,000 for the device;
- Gizmodo has revealed what it claims is the identity of the Apple employee responsible for the phone;
- Apple has formally requested the “device” be returned, and Gizmodo will apparently comply.
Many questions surround how the iPhone prototype was acquired by a still-unnamed third party. Gizmodo’s story is that the device was “found” in a Redwood City bar, but many questions remain whether “found” really means “stolen.” What is clear is that someone who eventually came into possession of the device recognized it was Apple property, and nonetheless offered it for sale to a number of online news outlets. Most passed, although tech blog Engadget apparently toyed with the idea. Gizmodo was willing to put up the cash for the device. From its coverage, Gizmodo knew—or at least strongly believed—the device was Apple’s property.
Now Gizmodo is trumpeting a letter from Apple general counsel Bruce Sewell formally requesting the return of “a device” that belongs to Apple. Gizmodo holds out the letter as undeniable proof of the iPhone prototype’s authenticity.
The legal fallout of Gizmodo’s actions may take a while to simmer down. It’s possible Apple will walk away from the incident quietly without pursuing legal actions, and it’s not clear what Gizmodo’s liability, if any, might be under California state law. What is apparent: Gizmodo owner and Gawker media head Nick Denton had no problem paying people to hand over possibly-stolen property, and had no problem doing (at least) serious damage to the career of an Apple employee who may have misplaced an iPhone prototype—or had it stolen from him.