Apple has lost in its bid to create a two-tier system of journalism through its case against Mac news websites the company attempted to characterise as 'bloggers'.

The three judges in the California appeals court rejected an earlier finding in Apple's favour, denying the company the right to prosecute the sites for publishing its trade secrets.

They also blocked Apple's attempt to unveil the true identity of those within the company who have been passing information to these sites, including forcing ISPs to hand over their clients' confidential records.

The court determined that online journalists have the same right to protect their sources that offline journalists do.

In recent months, large companies have been attempting to create the false notion that only journalists writing for large media organisations should be considered journalists.

In a four-page declaration (PDF) The judges declared: "The shield law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what petitioners did here," the court said. "We can think of no workable test or principle that would distinguish 'legitimate' from 'illegitimate' news. Any attempt by courts to draw such a distinction would imperil a fundamental purpose of the First Amendment."

Apple has been claiming that new product information is tantamount to trade secrets, and that this information had been "misappropriated and disseminated".

The company had demanded the identities of the information leaks, arguing that they must have contravened a confidentiality agreement with the company. As such it had a right to unmask the leaks, the company alleged.

"Today's decision is a victory for the rights of journalists, whether online or offline, and for the public at large," Kurt Opsahl, a spokesperson for online civil liberties group the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) said.

"In addition to being a free-speech victory for every citizen reporter who uses the internet to distribute news, today's decision is a profound electronic privacy victory for everyone who uses email," said EFF attorney Kevin Bankston.