Are those who leak product information pre-release serving the public good?

Someone on an IRC channel I frequent thinks so. He argues that informed choice is the foundation of the free market and capitalism. Ergo, someone who leaks inside information on unreleased products is not necessarily morally wrong, because they are letting the public make a fully informed decision before they decide to buy a product. And in the context of this particular product, where product returns are much more difficult than the average product, if not impossible, he thinks that leakers “perform a valuable service to the community.”

What do you think, folks?

What kind of information are we talking about? Is it proprietary intellectual property? Is it a information about a potentially dangerous defect?

Well, the defect part is more morally clear. I’m talking about stuff like the exact specs of a future computer product, the specific contents of an as-yet-to-be-released game, etc.

Not if it stops the company from making money on the product- that would basically be the same as copyright infringement (I don’t mean by saying, “I’ve played that game, it’s crap, don’t buy it”, I mean by saying “Hey, Spiderman kills Superman at the end of the movie! Now that I’ve spoiled the end, there’s no point buying it.”). And you could argue that, since a company will always act in the interests of making money, the strategy of marketing that it has decided on is the best way of making money on that product. Therefore, to break that strategy by releasing extra information is to deny that company cash, thus hurting both the company and the public if, say, that company goes bust because of it.

That’s not very clear, so I’ll give an example. Nintendo decides to release a new console, the q-Box. Their marketing campaign is to gradually build hype by releasing specifications slowly over time. However, a couple of months into the marketing campaign, someone releases the specs over the internet. Nintendo’s sales drop as a result. Maybe they go bust- meaning that they won’t be able to make the Q-Box Revolution next year. Here, someone has stolen information from the company and used it to deprive them of revenue. That doesn’t seem justfiable to me.

Sorry, you need to give more information than that.

What sort of “specs” were released. Did the content of the information include proprietary technological specs that gave the q-Box an edge on its competition? Or were the specs released simply a general account of speed, processor power, memory, performance, etc.?

Also, why did this information cause sales to drop? Was it because another company took advantage of the information to improve their own products? Or was it just because consumers looked at the specs and decided that the new q-Box wasn’t worth spending money on?

In cases like this, the details are important.

Unless the public’s health and welfare are involved, I can’t see what “public good” there is that’s served by leaking premature techno-gossip about upcoming products.

I think it depends entirely on how you got the information. If you signed an agreement upon accepting employment not to do so, you have an obligagtion to live up to that agreement unless actual harm is involved. On the other hand, if a company accidently sends you a copy of the game or something, I don’t think you have any obligation to maintain their secrets.

Yeah, I was too vague to make my hypothetical really helpful. I’m sorry. The point I was trying to make, though, is that leaking information which the company possesses is essentially the same as theft (or copyright infringement) if, by doing so, you deprive the company of revenue. On the other hand, the OP’s friend seemed to be taking the stance that “consumers should know everything”, so perhaps they’d take a perspective not in line with conventional view of copyright infringement, theft or intellectual property.

Happy Clam, you are using very broad notion of theft that seems to include doing anything that decreases the future earnings of someone else. If that is the case, why do you not consider it theft when someone says “I’ve played that game, it’s crap, don’t buy it.” I can imagine that if this person is an influential celebrity, that would make a huge difference in the company’s revenue. It sounds like you allows this person to say that the game is crap, but you don’t allow them to give a detailed explanation of why the game is crap, because that would require them to give specific properties of the game, like plot developments or whatever. How do you justify making this distinction?

I suppose I’m basing it on the fact that the information is acquired through unlawful (or at least unethical) means, ie. when the company has not yet released any information about the game and someone goes ahead and leaks it after obtaining it from an employee or whatever. To continue your analogy, it would be as if someone broke into my house, stole the plans of the new game I was designing, and then went out saying “it’s crap”. On the other hand, if I gave that person the plans, or they brought the game in shops, I’d have no problem with them spreading their opinion.