Some extraordinary communications have leaked to Bloomberg, showing Steve Jobs threatening his counterpart at Palm. It seems the Apple CEO — and supposed empowerer of creative workers everywhere — wanted to keep his workers locked down like so much chattel.

It's not entirely surprising that Jobs wanted to strip his employees of their right to seek market wages; for all his talk of disruptive nonconformity, he has a notoriously nasty and authoritarian management style. And he reportedly had a similar "no poaching" deal in place with Google. What is eye-opening about Bloomberg's report is the frank manner in which then-Palm CEO Ed Colligan pushed back:

"Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other's employees, regardless of the individual's desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal," Colligan said to Jobs, 54, according to the communications.

Palm had just hired iPod executive Jon Rubinstein away from Apple and surely knew it would soon embark on an epic Apple hiring spree; Rubinstein's blunt response was no doubt intended to be part of a library of evidence of Apple's behavior, should one ever be needed. But Jobs was not cowed. According to Bloomberg, he stated that "Apple had patents and more money than Palm if the companies ended up in a legal fight."

Who leaked these "communications" — emails, presumably — to Bloomberg? The obvious bet is Palm, which has been engaged in a back-and-forth war with Apple to allow its Palm Pre mobile device, which competes with Apple's iPhone, to sync with Apple's iTunes software. Apple's attempts to stop such syncing have been the object of deserved ridicule online, and Jobs' threatening message to Palm might have been leaked to drum up further outrage and put more pressure on Apple to open its platform .

There's also a chance someone involved with the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into Silicon Valley hiring is the source of the leak. That probe involves not only Apple but Google and Yahoo, as well, according to a Washington Post report.

Whatever the source of the information, the bottom line for Apple is that it faces a mounting perception that it is a bully, between this, the Palm Pre issue and the two federal investigations into ties between Google and Apple, to say nothing of its exclusionary policies concerning the iPhone app store. That's not going to dent, say, iPhone sales anytime soon. But it's going to hurt Apple's ability to pose as the Valley's corporate iconoclast, which will have a real, if intangible, effect on the company long-term.

[via Business Insider]