How Sony stood up to Steve Jobs’ wage-fixing schemes at Pixar


Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter at Pixar

Steve Jobs may have been part of some of the biggest tech revolutions of the past forty years, but he was also part of an illegal attempt to suppress employee wages by way of a massive no-poaching agreement with other tech giants.

Another of the companies accused of similar actions by former employees was Pixar, the company Jobs purchased a majority interest in after being booted out of Apple in the mid-80s. In 2011, Pixar’s John Lasseter described Jobs as “forever…part of Pixar’s DNA.”

As it happens, that may not be entirely for the best.

Around the time that Jobs took over Pixar, the company forged an agreement with a number of other studios, agreeing not to steal their talent if they would do the same for Pixar.

Recently released emails from Pixar head Ed Catmull to Steve Jobs (and others) shows a February 2004 conversation in which Catmull contacted the Apple CEO to register his disgust that one company would try to stand up to them.

That company? Sony.

From: EC

Sent: Wednesday, February 18, 2004 1:19AM

To: Steve Jobs (sorry, you need Javascript to see this e-mail address)

Subject: Sony

Sony has approached all of our producers trying to hire them. They all just ignored Sony, although REDACTED forwarded on the email from the recruiter.

Today, REDACTED, one of our department managers told me that she was offered a position as producer for Sony’s first CG film and is likely to accept. If so, she would report to REDACTED.

The director of the movie is REDACTED [Jill Culton, ex-Lucasfilm and on Pixar-produced Monsters Inc—M.A.] who started off as head of story on Monsters but burnt out. She is good but fragile. The movie is about animals that turn the table on hunters. REDACTED

REDACTED will talk with her [the Pixar manager that Sony was poaching]. She isn’t so great that we have to keep her, and she isn’t so bad that she would hurt Sony.

We don’t have a no raid arrangement with Sony. We have set up one with ILM [Lucasfilm] and Dreamworks which has worked quite well. I probably should go down and meet with Sandy and Penney and Sony to reach some agreement. Our people are become [sic] really desirable and we need to nip this in the bud.

Unfortunately for Pixar, Sony refused to do this. Catmull evidently bore a grudge, because later on when Sony ran into problems with its CGI film division Catmull wrote another email expressing his eagerness to specifically pursue Sony employees for employment, given the company’s past refusal to tow the no-poaching line.

“Now that Sony has announced their intentions with regard to selling part of their special effects business, and given Sony’s extremely poor behavior in its recruiting practices, I would feel very good about aggressively going after Sony people,” he wrote.

While Pixar was one of several companies to settle in the ensuing class action antitrust case (paying $9 million in damages along with Lucasfilm), Apple kept fighting the case for longer, before settling for a combined $324.5 million (alongside Google, Adobe and Intel) in May this year. During the case it was argued that the wronged employees should be able to use evidence of Steve Jobs’ bullying in court.

Recently one of the plaintiffs has claimed that the settlement is unfair – given the original $3 billion in damages the plaintiffs were hoping for – and wrote to Judge Lucy Koh to ask her to rethink the decision.

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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