Sony Demands Reporters Stop Reporting On, Destroy Stolen Documents

From the letter sent by Sony's lawyers to reporters who may have written about or accessed files stolen in the recent hack.

From the letter sent by Sony’s lawyers to reporters who may have written about or accessed files stolen in the recent hack.

Sony is still reeling from the recent massive hack that has opened a seemingly endless source of news stories about funny names that celebrities use to check into hotels and which movie stars are considered greedy jerks by greedier, jerkier studio executives. But now the company is hoping to put this to an end, sending legal notices to reporters asking them to cease writing about the stolen items and to delete anything they might have in their possession.

Cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs writes that he received one of these very letters [PDF] from Sony lawyers over the weekend.

“We have reason to believe that you may possess, or may directly or indirectly be given, illegally obtained documents,” or other info from the breach, reads the letter, which claims that these documents may include and confidential personnel data, copyrighted intellectual property, trade secrets and that some items may involve attorney-client privilege.

Sony “does not consent to your possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading, or making any use of” this information, which Sony then requests “cooperation in destroying.”

If reporters fail to honor Sony’s request, the company says it “will have no choice but to hold you responsible for any damage or loss.”

And even if the reporter does oblige the request, the notice is sent “without prejudice,” meaning that Sony is still reserving all of its legal rights to pursue action against the recipients.

However, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh points out this morning in the Washington Post, the Supreme Court has previously held that an illegally obtained document isn’t therefore illegal to publish.

The 2001 case of Bartnicki v. Vopper involves a radio commentator who aired illegally taped recordings that had been provided to him. Because the reporter himself did not do the recording and because the subject was a matter of public concern — in this instance, heated collective-bargaining negotiations between a teachers union and a school district — SCOTUS held that the broadcast of the recordings was protected speech.

The question of whether or not this is relevant to the Sony situation is whether or not one believes the stolen information is of great public concern. Sure, it’s perhaps interesting and titillating to learn what some studio exec thinks of Leonardo DiCaprio or Ryan Gosling, but does it rise to the level of something the public actually needs to know about? Of course, the documents that Sony is most likely to sue about are the ones that deal with information that is more vital than which celebrities are naughty or nice.

There could be some viable lawsuits involving particularly harmful or sensitive personal information being published, but such complaints would most likely need to come from the persons who have been harmed, says Volokh, who ultimately concludes that Sony is “unlikely to prevail — either by eventually winning in court, or by scaring off prospective publishers — especially against the well-counseled, relatively deep-pocketed, and insured media organizations that it’s threatening.”