An appeals court has granted Microsoft's request to stay a ruling in the government antitrust case against the company that would have made depositions of senior company executives open to the press and public.
The depositions will proceed, but will be closed to the public, pending a final ruling on the matter by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. If the court decides in the meantime that the testimony should have been public, videotapes and transcripts of the depositions can be made available publicly, the appeals court ruled.
Heeding arguments from various news organisations, US District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled last week that the depositions of Microsoft executives, including Chairman and CEO Bill Gates, should be open to the public. When the judge refused to stay the ruling as Microsoft requested, the software maker appealed.
The appeals court based its decision on the following rationale: If the Microsoft executives are forced to testify publicly and the appeals court subsequently rules that the depositions should have been private, any damage to Microsoft cannot be undone.
But if the depositions are held privately and the appeals court rules they should have been public, videotapes and transcripts from the depositions can always be made public at that time.
"The balance of harms favors" Microsoft, the court said.
The ruling, albeit a temporary one, came as a relief to Microsoft. The software maker argued that deposing its executives publicly would turn the trial into a "media circus."
"We're gratified by today's decision and we'll move ahead with the depositions and the trial," Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan said. "We're looking forward to presenting our case in court in September."
Spokespeople for the U.S. Department of Justice were not immediately available to comment on the ruling.
The Justice Department, 20 US states and the District of Columbia have accused Microsoft of illegally using its dominance in the PC operating systems market to control other software markets, particularly the Internet market. The trial is due to begin Sept. 8, although sources close to the trial have indicated that Jackson is considering pushing that date back two weeks.
A schedule for depositions has not yet been set, but they could start immediately and do not have to wait until the trial is underway, Cullinan said.
Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington, can be reached at http://www.microsoft.com/. The Justice Department, in Washington, D.C., can be reached at http://www.usdoj.gov/. The New York Attorney General in Albany, the lead attorney in the lawsuit for the 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, is at +1-212-474-7330, or at http://www.oag.state.ny.us/.