Yes, Carl Sagan once sued Apple for libel

One of my favorite parts of Reddit is a section called "Today I Learned," where readers submit stories and facts that maybe not everybody knows. Last week while browsing there, I learned that the famous astronomer Carl Sagan, who died in 1996, sued Apple for libel two years earlier. The details of the matter are highly amusing, as they apply to Apple, and at least slightly disappointing as they apply to Sagan.

Those of you already familiar with the tale are free to move about the cabin. For everyone else, let's unpack a Wikipedia passage about the case (I've checked enough of the original sources to know this really happened, strange as that will seem momentarily):

"In 1994, engineers at Apple Computer code-named the mid-level Power Macintosh 7100 'Carl Sagan' after the popular astronomer in the hope that Apple would make 'billions and billions' with the sale of the computer."

Billions and billions, as in Sagan's trademark "billions and billions of stars." That's a downright funny code-name, most people would agree. Not Sagan.

"Apple used the name only internally, but Sagan was concerned that it would become a product endorsement and sent Apple a cease and desist letter."

OK, that seems like a marginal concern, but I can see a famous person feeling this way or a famous person's lawyer doing so. Apple did as Sagan requested, I assume out of an abundance of caution more than genuine legal concern. ... Then the real fun starts.

"Apple complied, but its engineers retaliated by changing the internal codename to 'BHA' for 'Butt-Head Astronomer'. Sagan then sued Apple for libel in federal court."

If Sagan's lawyer didn't tell him that this lawsuit would be futile - and that it would in the process make them both look silly - he should have been disbarred.

"The court granted Apple's motion to dismiss Sagan's claims and opined in dicta that a reader aware of the context would understand Apple was 'clearly attempting to retaliate in a humorous and satirical way,' and that 'It strains reason to conclude that Defendant was attempting to criticize Plaintiff's reputation or competency as an astronomer. One does not seriously attack the expertise of a scientist using the undefined phrase 'butt-head'."

Now at this point the appropriate advice - legal or otherwise -- would have been: "Hey, Carl, stop digging that hole." But if Sagan received such advice it was ignored.

"Sagan then sued for Apple's original use of his name and likeness, but again lost and appealed that ruling. In November 1995, Apple and Sagan reached an out of court settlement and Apple's office of trademarks and patents released a conciliatory statement that 'Apple has always had great respect for Dr. Sagan. It was never Apple's intention to cause Dr. Sagan or his family any embarrassment or concern.'"

That strikes me as a savvy public relations move. I mean say you beat the beloved Carl Sagan in another courtroom duel - as would have been likely -- what have you done? Well, you've beaten the beloved Carl Sagan.

Nevertheless, I have to agree with this final retort from those Apple engineers.

"Apple's third and final code name for the project was 'LaW', short for 'Lawyers are Wimps'".

Comments should be sent to buzz@nww.com. I'm fairly certain that subpoenas still need to be served in person.

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