German Design Firm Claims Willful Patent Infringement Over Google Earth

google-earth-logoA German design firm is claiming that Google and Google Earth have infringed its patent (USRE44550 E1) and is seeking triple damages under the notion that the infringement was intentional or willful. The firm, ART+COM (“ACI”), makes the following claims:

  • The development history of Google Earth indicates knowledge and infringement by key Google employees
  • Google Earth “bears remarkable similarities to ART+COM’s commercial system, which was developed nearly a decade prior to Google’s introduction of Google Earth.”

The claimed patent and method for rendering geographical objects (Terravision) was reportedly developed in the mid-1990s by individuals who assigned the patent to ACI, which is not a “patent troll.” The US patent was published late last year.

The following is how the complaint describes Terravision:

Terravision is a networked virtual representation of the earth based on satellite images, aerial shots, and altitude and architectural data. It provides an environment to organize and access information spatially. Users of Terravision can navigate seamlessly from overviews of the earth to extremely detailed objects and buildings. In addition to photorealistic representations of the earth, Terravision displays a variety of data, including historical shots and architectural data, which allow users to navigate not only spatially but through time. All data are distributed and networked and are streamed into the system per the user’s needs. Terravision was the first system to provide a seamless navigation and visualization in a massively large spatial data environment.

That sounds quite a bit like Google Earth. The complaint also includes side-by-side graphical comparisons of Terravision (left) and Google Earth (right).

Google Earth vs. TerraVision

One of the more sensational aspects of the complaint is the contention that the design and concepts behind Terravision were essentially stolen by people who came to develop Google Earth. It traces the employment histories of Google’s Michael Jones (Google Earth CTO) and Brian McClendon (now in charge of Google Maps).

The complaint says that both Jones and McClendon were employees of SGI (Silicon Graphics) whose computer workstations were used to develop and render Terravision:

In the course of developing Terravision, ART+COM’s inventors worked directly with SGI personnel to modify the software libraries for the Onyx systems to suit the requirements of Terravision. ART+COM’s inventors disclosed to SGI personnel the intended capabilities of Terravision and provided copies of video capturing the operation of Terravision.

Jones and McClendon were both later with Keyhole, which was acquired by Google in 2004 and became the basis for Google Earth. The acquisition price to my knowledge was never revealed.

Later the parties to this litigation were in direct talks about patent licensing or acquisition. However, as alleged in the complaint, those talks broke down after the parties were unable to agree on terms.

A simple reading of the complaint indicates the claims are not frivolous. However, even if infringement can be shown the major challenge for plaintiffs in this case is probably proving damages.

Google has made little money (some licensing, modest ad revenue) on Google Earth since 2004, making any meaningful “actual damages” calculation difficult. And since triple damages for willful infringement is a multiple of actual damages (3X) this is where the case may actually be fought.

The lawsuit was filed in Delaware and is embedded below.

Depending on the outcome of this litigation, ACI may also have similar claims against Apple based on its acquisitions of Poly9 in 2010 and C3 Technologies in 2011. These two companies contributed substantially to the development of Apple Maps.