Uber, Waymo Mired In Legal Battle Over Intellectual Property

A gavel juxtaposed against the scales of justice.

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Two industry leaders in the world of transportation—more specifically, two companies competing to lead the global movement toward autonomous vehicles—are mired in a bitter court dispute.

Opening arguments were heard this week in the case of Waymo v. Uber, as the former company has accused the latter of using shady tactics to steal intellectual property, according to The Washington Post.

Charles Verhoeven, the lead attorney for Waymo, asserted that former Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick broke the law when he targeted and hired away one of Waymo’s engineers.

“The evidence is going to show that Mr. Kalanick, the CEO at the time, made a decision that winning was more important than obeying the law,” Verhoeven said. “He made a decision to cheat. Because for him, winning at all costs, no matter what, was his culture and was what he was going to do.” 

Verhoeven’s evidence includes a number of internal emails and text messages that show Kalanick believed Waymo’s work on autonomous vehicles was an existential threat to Uber’s business. That, the Waymo team alleges, is why Kalanick sought to poach talented engineer Anthony Levandowski—and have Levandowski pilfer 14,000 confidential files from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, before meeting with him.

This case could have major implications for the business world. Experts believe that whoever wins this case is going to have a huge advantage in terms of controlling the autonomous vehicle market.

More broadly, the case may also have an impact on intellectual property law as we know it. What exactly defines a “trade secret,” and how can such properties be controlled? These are especially vexing questions in Silicon Valley, where innovation happens quickly and people change jobs often. It’s difficult to control the flow of information in such an active marketplace of ideas.

“Waymo bears the burden of establishing that each and every one of these trade secrets are actual trade secrets,” argued William Carmody, a lawyer for the Uber side. “[When engineers change jobs], they don’t get a lobotomy.”

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