Too Small to Matter, or Too Important to Tell?

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When in doubt, keep everything as close to the vest as possible.

That's been the mantra at Apple (NAS: AAPL) for years now. New products are invariably veiled in secrecy, and when an errant iPhone finds its way into the blogosphere ahead of time, the police get involved. Samsung and others are at the sharp end of Cupertino's lawsuit stick for allegedly copying design concepts from iPhones and iPads. And what's a product announcement without "one more thing" that nobody expected?

We'll find out about that last bit today. Otherwise, Apple's cloaking devices are operating at full speed as always.

The company settled a lawsuit with Finnish phone giant Nokia (NYS: NOK) this summer, paying out some money and signing a cross-licensing agreement to make the problem go away. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, which typically points to a minuscule cash payment that doesn't change anybody's business prospects.

And indeed, that was Cupertino's position at the time, as explained in an SEC filing: "The total amounts to be paid under the Patent License Agreement were immaterial to the Company's overall liquidity and financial position and no aspects of the Company's arrangements with Nokia represented a material trend or uncertainty or were otherwise material or necessary to make any required disclosures not misleading. "

But that wasn't good enough for the SEC, and the agency pressed on for more information until Apple handed over the required data. But now, the company sings a different tune. Now the settlement contains "commercially sensitive information" and should therefore be treated as top secret.

Court papers are sealed and redacted all the time; I don't have a problem with that part of this saga. It's the turncoat attitude that bothers me.

The Nokia settlement is too inconsequential to matter, yet too sensitive for full disclosure. If the settlement was too full of business secrets all along, then why not say so right away? Shareholders, also known as the people who actually own the business, are kept in the dark. And if management can obfuscate this trifling matter, who knows what other shenanigans might be going on?

In all fairness, Apple is not the only Silicon Valley business to throw shrouds of secrecy where they don't belong. When Google (NAS: GOOG) wanted courts to bring out the red pen but Oracle (NAS: ORCL) preferred to have supposed secrets in the open, this Google shareholder had to root for the opposing team for a while.

Full disclosure is where it's at, people. Add Apple to your Foolish watchlist to follow the sneakiest operator of them all. With an avalanche of news and analysis at your disposal, you'll be better equipped to see through the smoke and mirrors.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Oracle, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google and Apple, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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