The ruling alarmed speech advocates, who saw the case as a test of whether people who write for Web publications enjoy the same legal protections as reporters for mainstream publications. Among those are protections afforded under California's "shield" law, which is meant to encourage the publication of information in the public's interest.
The reporters — who run sites followed closely by Apple enthusiasts — allegedly published product descriptions that Apple said employees had leaked in violation of nondisclosure agreements and possibly the U.S. Trade Secrets Act.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg ruled that no one has the right to publish information that could have been provided only by someone breaking the law.
"The rumor and opinion mills may continue to run at full speed," Kleinberg wrote. "What underlies this decision is the publishing of information that at this early stage of the litigation fits squarely within the definition of trade secret.
"The right to keep and maintain proprietary information as such is a right which the California Legislature and courts have long affirmed and which is essential to the future of technology and innovation generally."
In December, Apple sued several unnamed individuals, called "Does," who leaked specifications about a pending music software
code-named "Asteroid" — to Monish Bhatia, Jason O'Grady and another person who writes under the pseudonym Kasper Jade. Their articles appeared in the online publications Apple Insider and PowerPage.
Apple demanded that Bhatia, O'Grady and Jade divulge their sources. The reporters refused to cooperate, saying that identifying their sources would create a "chilling effect" that could erode the media's ability to report in the public's interest.
The online reporters could not immediately be reached for comment Friday but have said they would consider appealing a decision favoring Apple.
Apple Insider and PowerPage have hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors and generate revenue through advertisements, but they are a fraction of the size of more established publications covering the computer industry.
The journalists have said Apple is trying to curtail their First Amendment rights because they lack the legal and financial resources that mainstream publications have to fight such information requests. Other trade publications wrote about the music technology after the reporters broke the story online.
"Apple is using this case as a desperate attempt to silence the masses of bloggers and online journalists that it cannot control but feels it can intimidate," Jade, who has been writing about Apple for more than eight years, wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. "Online publications are typically not backed by commercially funded organizations — a weak spot Apple most certainly recognized prior to filing its suits. The company hopes that it can stop or chill the Apple-news industry with its threats."
The Cupertino-based company did not immediately respond to calls for comment after Friday's ruling.