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CBS Battling 'Survivor' Contestant Accused of Leaking Secrets

Thanks to a lawsuit that was filed last August by DJB, Inc., a company run by Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett, CBS been able to identify Season 19 runner-up Russell Hantz as the alleged culprit who blabbed secrets about the long-running reality competition show. The news was first reported by The Daily Beast, which points out that Hantz may now have to pay "liquidated damages" to producers of $5 million for breaching the non-disclosure clauses in his contract to appear on the program.

But let's back up for a moment. How did the show's producers figure out Hantz was the source?

On August 13, DJB filed a lawsuit in U.S District Court in California against a "John Doe" who was claimed to have acquired and anonymously disseminated over the Internet sensitive information about Survivor. The lawsuit alleged that someone had violated trade-secret laws and induced an inside source to breach his confidentiality agreement. The plaintiff asked for discovery so it could identify the man who was publishing the leaks.

There have been a handful of disputes over the years that have raised the prospect of liability for publishers who induce sources to leak trade secrets. Ironically, the most famous instance involved Survivor network CBS.

In 1995, CBS was threatened with a lawsuit for inducing Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco executive at Brown & Williamson, to breach the confidentiality provisions of his contract and appear on 60 Minutes. Lawyers at the network got nervous and forced the news show to cut out parts of Wigand's interview. The drama became the basis for the 1999 Russel Crowe film The Insider.

After DJB filed its August lawsuit, a judge allowed it to pursue discovery, which lead it to identify Jim Early as the anonymous guy on SurvivorSucks.com who was disseminating secrets. Rather than fight, Early has handed over his source, allegedly Hantz, who has delivered a cryptic half-denial about the charge. 

So now Hantz is possibly facing legal action from CBS for violating the Survivor talent contract, which the network had previously attempted to keep private by using the same trade secrets excuse. Is CBS, which faced criticism fifteen years ago for not doing more to protect free speech in the Wigand episode, again doing harm to the sanctity of news-gathering by pursuing online disseminators of its trade secrets? CBS would probably take umbrage with the idea that the "backstabbing" group of "fans/bloggers who compete with each other for spoiler information" are news-gatherers. Then again, CBS is running with the idea that information about a reality show amounts to a "trade secret."

(Correction made: Original lawsuit was filed in August, not November)