On Monday, February 5th, oral arguments will begin for one of the most anticipated technology cases of the year. The Honorable William Alsup will preside over Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc. et al.
If you haven’t heard of this case, this is what you need to know.
Waymo, an autonomous car company in Silicon Valley, was originally owned by Google. Waymo broke away from Google in 2009 and is now owned by Alphabet (which owns Google). In February 2017, Waymo accused Uber of stealing eight trade secrets that relate to the design of a type of sensor that is used in self-driving cars, as well as “negative trade secret,” i.e. a valuable lesson about what does and doesn’t work that was learned through time-consuming trial and error.
The technology in question – LiDAR – is the type of cost-effective and high-performing laser that is used to create maps and allow self-driving cars to visualize and communicate with the world around them.
Waymo says the IP was stolen by a former employee who started his own driverless vehicle company, OttoMotto LLC and Otto Trucking, which Uber later acquired. Waymo claims — and Uber does not dispute – that Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,000 files before leaving Google and receiving a $120 million bonus from his former employer. The complaint says that Waymo didn’t learn of the alleged theft until December when it was “inadvertently” copied on an email from one of its LiDAR component vendors that showed Uber and Otto infringed multiple Waymo patents.
“This is not a case where an engineer accidentally stepped over the line from know-how to stealing trade secrets because they didn’t know where the line was,” a Waymo spokesman said. “The evidence shows that Levandowski and other individuals at Uber intentionally and willfully misappropriated Waymo’s trade secrets.”
The case brings a lesser-known area of IP into the spotlight: trade secrets. Unlike patents and trademarks or copyrighted materials, trade secrets can be protected without being written down. Trade secrets are defined as valuable information that is not generally known. The owner(s) of that valuable information must also take reasonable steps to protect it from being discovered. Good examples are the recipe for Coca-Cola and the Thomas English Muffin.
The case also brings up questions about employees and the arduous research and development process that many companies engage in for their creations. Judge Alsup has already pressed the parties to find ways to protect the rights of engineers who advance their careers elsewhere. When that engineer moves to another company and is assigned that same task, will that person need to “reinvent the wheel” and go through all the experiments again to make sure they are not using a former employer’s trade secrets? “Is an engineer really supposed to get a frontal lobotomy before they go to the next job? I think the answer has to be no,” Judge Alsup said.
The jury trial is set to begin today, February 5th.