In 2005, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs lashed out against Google’s founder for trying to hire from Apple’s browser team.

Dai Sugano • MCT file,

Silicon Valley accused of colluding on hiring programmers

  • February 28, 2014 - 11:55 PM

– Tech companies love new ideas, unless they belong to someone else. Then any breakthroughs must be neutralized or bought. Silicon Valley executives know all too well that a competitor’s unchecked innovation can quickly topple the mightiest tech titan.

Just how far Silicon Valley will go to remove such risks is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit that accuses industry executives of agreeing between 2005 and 2009 not to poach one another’s employees. Headed to trial in San Jose this spring, the case involves 64,000 programmers and seeks billions of dollars in damages. The practice’s mastermind, court papers say, was the executive who was the most innovative and most concerned about competition of all — Steve Jobs.

Court documents portray Silicon Valley engineers as “victims of a conspiracy” who were cheated by their bosses, said Joseph Saveri, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “These are the engineers building the hardware and software that are the lifeblood of the technology industry,” he said. “But they were prevented from being able to freely negotiate what their skills are worth.”

The actions described in the lawsuit were uncovered in an investigation by the Justice Department, which concluded with an antitrust complaint against a half-dozen companies. In a simultaneous settlement, the companies agreed to drop the no-poaching practice. The settlement did not preclude the programmers from pursuing their own case against the companies, and the class-action lawsuit quotes e-mails and other communications from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names.

Jobs was particularly worried about Google, which was expanding into areas where Apple had an interest. In 2005, for instance, Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, tried to hire from Apple’s browser team.

“If you hire a single one of these people that means war,” Jobs warned in an e-mail, according to court papers. Brin backed off, and Google and Jobs soon came to an informal pact not to solicit each other’s employees. Apple made similar deals with other firms. So did Google.New York Times

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