With all the dirty laundry Uber has been forced to air in recent weeks and months, you would think the company would want to bring to an end its period of bad publicity. The Uber-Waymo legal dispute is still ongoing, but rather than keep it as quiet as possible, Uber seems willing to do the whole thing publicly.
The case centers around Anthony Levandowski, an individual who previously worked on the Google driverless car project before leaving to work on Uber’s own development of driverless cars.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet – who is bringing the case against Uber and who are ultimately responsible for Google’s self-driving-car division, Waymo – accuse Levandowski of taking trade secrets to Uber, and of patent infringement.
In mid-May, a federal judge ordered Levandowski to hand over around 14,000 documents downloaded before leaving his old job. A preliminary injunction sought by Waymo was also granted, to stop Uber benefiting from any knowledge Levandowski may have brought to them.
Uber is “finding out the hard way”
Sanvada spoke to Phil Bezanson, a Managing Partner at the Seattle Office of the law firm Bracewell, to get an expert opinion on the Uber-Waymo case.
Summarizing the case, Mr. Bezanson says that, “Levandowski left Waymo with data he wasn’t supposed to have; reports of up to 9GB of data. Uber says it has not used any of this data – whether consciously or inadvertently.”
The questions is, Mr. Bezanson says, “Will Levandowski cooperate to try and salvage relationship between both companies as well as save his own career?”
Whatever state Levandowsk’s career eventually ends up in, Uber have seemingly made life harder for him and themselves.
Uber’s denied request to have the matter resolved in private arbitration, Mr. Bezanson explains, will ensure that the high profile legal battle will continue in public.
“Federal law is designed to be very transparent and Uber is finding it out the hard way that anything they turn over can be used against them. Nothing is private outside of arbitration,” said Mr. Bezanson, an expert in white-collar criminal cases.
He further points out that the judge’s referral to the US Attorney’s office could mean things roll into a larger investigation.
“Whether or not prosecution or investigation teams will hold (Uber) accountable on morals, ethics, etc is still not known,” Mr. Bezanson says.
“Levandowski’s actions and whether Uber likely knew, or at least should have known, that he had taken and retained possession of Waymo’s confidential files at the time remains unproven, but the tracks of data are present.”
Uber-Waymo challenges lawmakers keep up with tech companies
There is more than just Uber’s reputation at stake, here.
If tech moves more quickly than the government, Mr. Bezanson pointed out to Sanvada, it will only cause a bigger headache in the future.
“The Department of Justice needs to catch up with technology in order to govern it properly,” he said. “If they don’t, defendants in cases like this – ones in which there is obvious wrongdoing – could get off very easily because there are no laws to protect stolen data if the theft is not black-and-white.”
Dealing in trade secrets is nothing new, of course. But the nature of the trades from which secrets now come is changing.
R. Polk Wagner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, recently pointed out on a Knowledge at Wharton podcast that trade secret law has traditionally not been seen as, “a particularly reliable or useful way to protect technology,” to an extent because keeping technology secret is difficult when it proceeds to be part of products on sale.
However, that could change.
“If Google is successful at putting a dent in Uber’s ability to compete in this field as a result of this case, then people will take notice of that and you will probably see more people using trade secrets” as part of their intellectual property strategies, Wagner said.
“On the other hand, if Google is not successful, or even if they win this case and they don’t slow Uber down very much, then people are going to go back to what we traditionally think… which is unless you have a patent covering the technology, you don’t have a lot of protection.”
There is a school of thought that suggests “putting a dent” in Uber is Google’s main goal, and that this is not just about protection and justice. This battle could change the course of history, in terms of major self-driving technology shifts, and the legal landscape.
Thanks to Uber, we’ll get to hear more about the battle now they’ve decided to fight it in public.