A common cause of litigation involving intellectual property is the decision by a key employee to take his talent and knowledge to a competitor. Usually, the departing employee and his new employer remain allies in any litigation that ensues. This theme was given a new variation recently when Uber fired one of its star autonomous driving engineers in the midst of complex business litigation with a Google subsidiary involving the alleged theft of intellectual property and unfair competition.
The dispute was spawned when an engineer renowned for his expertise in the algorithms used by self-driving cars left a Google subsidiary and ultimately wound up working for Uber. After leaving Google, the engineer founded his own autonomous vehicle company Otto. Uber then purchased Otto and the ex-Google engineer became Uber’s vice-president of technology. Shortly afterward, Uber was sued by Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. Waymo alleged that Uber and the former Google engineer were using Waymo’s trade secrets and competing unfairly in developing self-driving cars.
Both Uber and the engineer denied these allegations, but the case became more complex when the federal judge overseeing the case ordered the engineer to produce evidence and testimony. The engineer refused, citing his fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Uber pressured the engineer to provide the specified information, but after the engineer hid behind the fifth amendment, Uber fired him.
This case is far from over. Both Uber and Waymo (with help from Google) have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the autonomous driving technology. Neither firm wants the other to obtain and use its expensive trade secrets and other confidential information. The outcome is especially cloudy for the engineer. He may end up having liability to both Google and Uber for misuse or theft of confidential intellectual property. Anyone caught in the middle of a similar dispute may wish to consult an experienced business lawyer for advice on the law and facts that will govern the outcome of the case.
Source: New York Times, “Uber Fires Former Google Engineer at Heart of Self-Driving Dispute,” Mike Isaac and Daisuke Wakabayashi, May 30, 2017