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Lawyers Say Sony Can't Keep Media From Reporting Hacked Details


The hacking of Sony Studios computers has led to a multitude of stories about Hollywood grudge matches and backroom deal-making involving some of the most famous names in entertainment. Sony has hired a new prominent lawyer who's warning news organizations, including NPR, they must destroy copies of any of the emails and documents and that they may be breaking the law in publishing these stories.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is following all this and joins me now. And David, why don't you walk this back, talk a bit about the hack itself and some of the many salacious details that have been reported.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, so this all started right around Thanksgiving week when some anonymous emailers came forth and warned Sony that they were going to post some pretty damaging stuff, and they proceeded to do so. There have been thoughts that these hackers have ties to North Koreans because one of the demands ultimately was that they not release this upcoming Seth Rogen caper film involving a harebrained CIA plot to kill the dictator of North Korea. But the North Koreans dispute this, and the FBI says there's no evidence to support that. Some of the stories that came out were pretty juicy and pretty embarrassing for Sony. There were advance copies of unreleased films put on sites for dissemination, clearly to damage the studio. There are questions of clear salary disparities between men and women at Sony pictures, as well as disparity for the pay of Jennifer Lawrence versus some of her costars. And additionally, the co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures, Amy Pascal, was shown an email chain kind of disparaging an Angelina Jolie project involving a movie to remake "Cleopatra." So this was one series of embarrassments after another in recent days and weeks.

BLOCK: Well, Sony has hired, as we mentioned, a high-profile attorney. It's David Boies. What's his warning been to news organizations and what's the foundation of his argument?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, to be honest, Boies writes these letters to a lot of news organizations - as you said, including NPR - and he's offered a hodgepodge of reasons. He said there's an attorney-client privilege being violated, that Sony has intellectual property rights to the material that's being disseminated, that there's confidential corporate information that's been revealed and that everyone needs to destroy this material. Whether they have it directly or if they have access to it indirectly, they need to make sure this material does not get out. Sony Pictures has rights, he says.

BLOCK: And you've been running that argument by some outside media lawyers. What do they say about it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I talked to several today. One of them, a prominent lawyer for a top media company, said this fell under the legal doctrine of so sad, too bad, other than the question of releasing what are so far not-yet-released films, which I think the intellectual property law would tend to protect very much Sony's rights on. But you know, there was a Supreme Court case a little over a decade ago which expanded the rights of journalists. It was a case in which a radio station broadcast illegally-taped conversation between two local union officials, but the radio station wasn't involved in that taping and didn't solicit it or try to acquire it. It was given to the radio station. In that case the justices ruled in a majority that, journalistically, there was a public interest in it and that there was a right to know. And that trumped any sort of third-party involvement in that illegal act.

BLOCK: And David, I gather that you think that the legal warning coming from Sony and its attorney is really more about atmospherics and damage-control than an actual legal threat. Why is that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there are a couple of elements to it, one of which was that Boies initially sent the letter to a lot of big organizations in recent days, some of which, including NPR and The New York Times, have not been leading the pack or been particularly aggressive in reporting this story.

Meanwhile, Gawker - which has been very interested and attuned to this story - only just received that legal note. And Fusion - based down in Miami, a joint enterprise of Univision and ABC News, which published some very embarrassing stories about the gender salary disparities at Sony - and Fusion tells me it has not yet received a copy of that letter. It seems to me that it's not simply about getting the material back. In addition, I think what you've really seen is Boies has successfully achieved at least a partial shift in the conversation. We're now talking about the legality and the morality of going after the material in those leaks, instead of about the stories themselves.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's David Folkenflik - David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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