Open Thread: Gizmodo vs. Apple vs. the Cops

In one of the most controversial technology stories of the past few months, the gadget blog Gizmodo got hold of (and dissected and displayed with great relish) a prototype of a next-generation iPhone, after an Apple engineer apparently left the device in a Silicon Valley bar. According to the blog’s description of events, someone picked up the phone after the engineer left it behind, and then sold it to a Gizmodo editor for $5,000. The initial story ultimately turned into a series of stories, and sparked a firestorm of criticism over the blog’s behavior in buying the phone rather than returning it to Apple, which some said was inappropriate and possibly illegal.
Criticism from bloggers and tech industry types aren’t Gizmodo’s only problems, however: on Friday, a police task force raided the home of editor Jason Chen and seized several computers and other belongings, carrying a warrant that they said authorized them to investigate a crime involving the sale of the iPhone prototype. In response, some — including Gawker Media COO Gaby Darbyshire, who is a lawyer, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — have argued that the police breached the so-called “journalist shield law” in California, which protects media outlets from search and seizure. On Monday evening, the district attorney’s office said that it was reviewing the case.
By buying the phone, some have argued that Gizmodo was simply practicing modern journalism, which for some tabloid outlets such as TMZ can involve paying sources for their stories. Gawker Media founder Nick Denton has said that he is happy to practice “checkbook journalism” in return for a good story, and that he is a “gossip merchant” who only accidentally engages in journalism. Others, including John Gruber of Daring Fireball, have maintained that Gizmodo was guilty of theft by buying a phone that the blog knew was not the lawful property of the person they bought it from.
What do you think? Was Gizmodo justified in paying someone for an iPhone prototype that they knew (or should have known) didn’t belong to the person they were buying it from? Or should they be subject to legal repercussions as a result of doing so?
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user SD Kirk