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A picture of Apple Park, Apple's "spaceship" campus in Cupertino. Photo: Ina Fried

Apple is suing a former employee who started Nuvia, a server chip startup that has hired at least 8 former Apple workers.

Why it matters: The suit is already bringing forth unusual disclosures from inside the secretive tech giant, including allegations Apple illegally searched its former employees' private text messages.

The background: Apple filed suit against Nuvia founder Gerard Williams III in Santa Clara Superior Court back in August, alleging breach of contract and breach of duty of loyalty. Apple is seeking an injunction, punitive damages and other remedies.

  • Williams spent 9 years at Apple, most recently as a senior platform architect, designing chips for the iPhone and iPad.
  • Nuvia announced itself publicly last month, saying it had raised $53 million in funding from Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital, Mayfield and WRVI Capital, among others.

What Apple's saying: Apple is saying that Williams breached his contract with Apple by planning Nuvia and recruiting former Apple workers for it while still working for Apple. It also alleges that some of Nuvia's technology results from Williams' work at Apple and therefore belongs to the company under the intellectual property agreement signed by all employees.

"This case involves a worst-case scenario for an innovative company like Apple: A trusted senior director with years of experience, and years of access to Apple’s most valuable information, secretly starts a competing company leveraging the very technology the director was working on, and the same teams he was working with, while still employed by Apple."
Apple, in the introduction of its suit

What Nuvia's saying: Nuvia says many of the provisions in Apple's contract violate state law, which generally favors employee mobility. It also says Apple's gathering of text messages was illegal.

"Apple, an early beneficiary of the creative forces that formed and continue to drive Silicon Valley, has filed this lawsuit in a desperate effort to shut down lawful employment by a former employee ... To further intimidate any current Apple employee who might dare consider leaving Apple, Apple’s complaint shows that it is monitoring and examining its employees’ phone records and text messages, in a stunning and disquieting invasion of privacy.
Nuvia, in court documents responding to Apple's suit

Between the lines: Apple positions itself as pro-privacy, and searching through employee phone records and text messages probably won't help that image. While the lawsuit doesn't specify how Apple came to acquire the call records and text messages, while Williams was an employee there could have been information on his Apple-owned devices or server backups of those devices.

Yes, but: No one in Silicon Valley really thinks Apple's pro-privacy stance extends to the work-related actions of its own employees. The company is famous for guarding its secrets and hunting down leaks or anyone who it believes might be taking its information. That said, California law generally frowns upon non-compete and non-solicitation provisions.

The big picture: The history of Silicon Valley and the chip industry in particular is one long saga of teams of engineers leaving one company to start another.

  • The "traitorous eight" left Shockley to start Fairchild in 1957.
  • Key Fairchild employees left to start Intel in 1968.

Our thought bubble: As Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian has argued, this kind of mobility of brains and skills is what made Silicon Valley. Whether Apple wins or loses its case, it's pushing against its own industry's DNA.

Go deeper

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A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

British national Malik Faisal Akram took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, the FBI said in a statement.

State of play: Authorities had initially declined to release the name of the 44-year-old suspect or identify the hostages, all adults, though police chief Michael Miller confirmed that one of those held was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who leads the congregation.

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Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

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  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health" — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— — CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: West Virginia governor feeling "extremely unwell" after positive test — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers — America struggles to keep schools open
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
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Novak Djokovic loses Australian visa appeal

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a forehand during a practice session ahead of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2022. Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Tennis star Novak Djokovic left Australia on Sunday evening, facing a three-year visa ban after an appeals court in the country revoked his visa.

Driving the news: Djokovic will not be able to defend his Australian Open title when the tournament starts in Melbourne. The World No. 1 is looking to break a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most Grand Slam men's singles titles.