Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Faces Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Over Branded Tech School

Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Faces Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Over Branded Tech School
Photo: Hannes Magerstaedt, Getty Images

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is facing a million-dollar lawsuit for allegedly stealing the idea to create a Woz-branded tech school, according to a weekend Insider report.

Connecticut business professor Ralph Reilly claims he and Wozniak agreed to establish a “tech university” and sealed the deal with an on-camera handshake in 2011. The educational platform, which was aimed at teaching adults computer and other technical skills, would lean heavily on Wozniak’s name and reputation as a key engineering force in Apple’s early days for branding purposes.

However, the partnership never got off the ground, Reilly said in court filings reviewed by Gizmodo and Insider. Wozniak went on to launch virtually the same idea under the name Woz U in 2017 after partnering with the code-learning firm Coder Camps. In response, Reilly reached out to Wozniak via email asking to be a part of the venture, according to court filings.

“It’s exactly what I envisioned for Woz Institute of Technology when I first approached you with the idea,” Reilly wrote at the time.

“You are right on the mark,” Wozniak responded. “You had the right idea… I doubt it would have happened without your initial idea!”

But when Reilly pushed back asking for partial ownership in the project, he was met with radio silence. Reilly went on sue Wozniak for alleged intellectual property theft and copyright infringement. He’s seeking at least $US1 ($1) million in relief and damages. Other accusations Reilly’s brought against Wozniak such as breach of contract have already been dismissed by a judge.

Insider reports that Reilly first approached him with the idea via email in September 2010. As the two corresponded over the next few months, at one point Reilly asked if Wozniak would consider endorsing him to launch “the Woz Institute of Technology,” according to court filings. Wozniak agreed to both the idea and the use of his name for the project in an emailed response.

At the aforementioned photo op in 2011, Reilly presented Wozniak with a contract granting an online school in Connecticut willing to work with them the right to use Wozniak’s name and image for the “Woz School of Technology” in exchange for quarterly payments. In a screenshot shared by Insider, what looks like Wozniak’s signature appears on an image of the contract presented in court filings. In his deposition, Wozniak claimed he didn’t remember signing the document but didn’t dispute it was his signature.

However, that deal eventually fell through, as did several others Reilly pursued with additional institutions, at which point Wozniak’s team began to distance itself from the project. When Reilly launched a mock-up website for the Woz Institute of Technology in 2013, Wozniak’s manager, Ken Hardesty, demanded it be taken down and told him to stop contacting Wozniak directly. Since Reilly obtained copyright protection for this website, it’s now at the centre of his million-dollar copyright lawsuit.

For his part, Wozniak’s team claims the two never reached a real deal on the proposal and the aforementioned on-camera handshake was just one of countless photo-ops he regularly conducts with fans. According to a legal deposition reviewed by Insider, a key component of Wozniak’s defence is that he takes a hands-off approach to his business dealings and instead leaves contract negotiations to other members of his team. Even in his deal with Coder Camps, Wozniak didn’t provide “any curriculum, ideas on programs, schedules or anything else” to Woz U, his lawyers wrote in the filing.

To wit, when asked by lawyers whether Coder Camps paid him $US1 ($1) million for his association with Woz U, Wozniak claimed he couldn’t recall whether he was paid for the deal, though his manager later confirmed he received the cash.

“One thing I avoid in life is anything having to do with money,” Wozniak said according to the filing. “I just don’t look at it… I wouldn’t know how much is in our bank account. My life is very different than most people.”

The copyright infringement case goes to trial next month in Arizona, and Wozniak has been called to the stand to testify, Insider reports. The three-day jury trial is scheduled to start on June 7.