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Apple mellowing its tone on leaks?

Following years of near-constant legal notices and other attempts to silence leaks and control the press, Apple appears to be softening its stance on rumors, an investigation suggests.

Best known as "Nick de Plume" from the now shuttered rumor site Think Secret, Nick Ciarelli explains that a quick poll of high-profile Apple news and rumor sites reveals that none of them have lately had to contend with the cease-and-desist requests that defined the community in the past.

While as late as last year the Mac and iPod maker was forcing stories offline, a number of reports in 2008 have remained active even when they were later confirmed as almost entirely accurate; this includes very detailed leaks that have ranged from iPhone 3G shells to fourth-generation iPod nano photos as well as detailed descriptions of Mac updates and software.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company's approach is particularly soft in comparison to its approach at the peak of its anti-rumor efforts in 2004 and 2005. The company at the time ultimately resorted to direct legal action in an attempt to quash late rumors that potentially spoiled its launch plans, such as an attempt to subpoena AppleInsider for the source of a leak of the since-aborted Asteroid audio device as well as a full lawsuit against Think Secret for revealing the Mac mini and the iWork suite.

These attempts produced mixed results for Apple. Although it negotiated a settlement that ultimately took Think Secret offline, the electronics giant was ultimately denied its subpoenas and asked to pay the legal defense fees of AppleInsider and others who had claimed a right to protect their sources.

It's not known whether the shift is a permanent one, or what if anything has triggered the reversal. Ciarelli speculates that many of the sites now publishing rumors are too large to be easily targeted for legal action: the Mac mini leak catapulted Think Secret into the New York Times and made the story harder to ignore, while many larger news outlets now either search for these rumors or else have their own sources.

Apple may also have determined it was producing the opposite effect through its actions, the writer says. In addition to generating negative buzz, the company has in many cases ironically confirmed rumors by sending cease-and-desist requests or other alerts only to sites publishing accurate leaks.

By allowing rumors to foster without comment, Apple is said to be keeping the attention focused on its announcements while also leaving room for a small amount of uncertainty that perpetuates interest in its launch events.