Google is still chasing the self-driving engineer that jumped ship to Uber
And has just won a bizarre argument to let arbitrators read a public document
If you thought the monster battle between Google and Uber over alleged theft of its self-driving technology was over, you'd be wrong.
The two companies were involved in an extraordinary legal battle earlier this year that revealed a series of shady goings-on at Uber, including a special unit whose job it was to steal competitors' secrets.
But in February, one week into a public trial, the companies unexpectedly settled, with Uber promising to pay Google $245m in stock.
While that civil case between Google (actually, its self-driving subsidiary Waymo) and Uber is over, the search engine giant is still chasing the engineer that sparked the whole saga in the first place: Anthony Levandowski.
Google has taken Levandowski, and another engineer Lior Ron, through arbitration proceedings for allegedly breaching their employment contracts as well as fraud, tortious interference, and a number of other claims.
And Google has just won a key battle in that fight, forcing Uber to hand over confidential documents [PDF], including a report that it ordered from an outside lawyer looking into whether Levandowski had stolen information from Google.
Levandowski worked at Google subsidiary Waymo before leaving – allegedly with a hard drive of the company's secrets – and setting up his own company, Ottomoto. That company was then quickly and mysteriously acquired by Uber.
It turned out that Uber executives and Levandowski had been communicating for months and Google alleged at the subsequent trial that the creation of the Ottomoto company was little more than a ruse to buy Levandowski, his team, and acquire Waymo's trade secrets while making it look like a legitimate business transaction.
A key part of that legal battle was over the report produced by specialist digital forensics company Stroz Friedberg LLC to dig into whether there had been any "bad acts" carried out by Levandowski and Ron.
Such "bad acts" would include "infringement or misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of fiduciary duty, and violation of any non-solicitation, non-competition, or confidentiality agreement committed by an employee." The report would then be used by Uber to protect the engineers from being personally liable for any subsequent legal claims from Google.
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Google tried to get hold of that report and Uber fought vigorously, going through multiple legal challenges and appeals before finally losing and being forced to provide the so-called Stroz Report, which was subsequently published.
Among its revelations were that Levandowski told Stroz he had found five discs with proprietary Google information on them in a closet (possibly the same one that contained dildos, nipple clamps and dominatrix harnesses) and had told Uber executives about them and the information on them - but had had them professionally destroyed (Stroz was unable to prove the claim).
Levandowski was also found to still be accessing confidential Google documents after he had left the company and to be in possession of a huge number of Google work emails.
But hang on, you say, if we already know all this, and the report is public (you can read it here [PDF]) – what is the massive legal win that Google just had at the California appeals court? Well, here is where a strange story gets even weirder.
When winning isn't enough
Even though Google won in civil court when it sued Uber to get hold of the Stroz Report, it lost when it tried to get hold of the exact same documents in the case against Levandowski personally.
In the arbitration case, Uber went to the California Supreme Court and managed to get the order to release the Stroz report overturned – even though it had already been ordered released to Google in the other court case.
For various legal reasons, the arbitrators in the Levandowski case are not allowed to consider the Stroz Report and its damning details even though it is readily and publicly available [PDF]. So while Google may have settled with Uber, it has spent the past eight months fighting to get the report released to the arbitrators.
And Uber, even though it settled the case and even though it has fired Levandowski, have spent eight months fighting to prevent the release of a report it has already published. Why? Because it is legally obligated to defend Levandowski because of an agreement it signed with him indemnifying him against any Google legal action.
And if all that leaves you scratching your head, all you need to know is this: Google may have let Uber off the hook for possibly conspiring with its former engineers to steal its trade secrets but it sure as hell is not going to let its former staff off the hook.
So be warned, if you try to screw Google, Google will spend years making sure you pay for it. ®