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Google-Uber self-driving suit's new twist

Google Inc.'s suit alleging an executive from rival Uber Technologies Inc. stole thousands of documents from its self-driving car unit took an unexpected turn this week, as the name of a second Uber employee facing legal action was revealed in an improperly redacted court document.

Google's Feb. 23 suit alleging Anthony Levandowski, who left Google to start his own self-driving company that was later purchased by Uber, downloaded thousands of documents and attempted to poach Google employees for his new company, has been closely watched by legal experts and in Silicon Valley.

Notably, the suit could potentially put the brakes on Uber's self-driving car ambitions if the company is found to have used trade secrets from Google unit Waymo in its own products, said Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law who directs the school's High Tech Law Institute, in an interview.

But Brandon Schoettle, a project manager at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Group who has studied self-driving cars, said that with carmakers and technology companies working on their own self-driving technologies, it was unlikely the suit could halt the overall progress toward driverless cars and trucks.

"I would be surprised if this suit slowed the development of the technology significantly, especially for Google/Waymo," he said in an email. "Furthermore, other companies like Ford, Tesla, GM, Toyota are all also developing similar technology, so this dispute between two of these companies (albeit two of the leaders) might not have much of an impact on the overall timeline for self-driving technology."

So far, both companies have expressed concerns about public disclosure of trade secrets. But on April 3, Uber publicly revealed that Google had separately sought arbitration against Levandowski and an unnamed Uber employee for breaching their employment agreements.

Some of the documents left descriptions that the employee had spent five years with Google's Maps division intact, while one left his first name, Lior, unredacted, suggesting that employee was Lior Ron, a co-founder of Levandowski's self-driving truck startup Otto.

The documents were first reported by Business Insider, prompting lawyers for Uber to re-file the documents and restrict the filings from public view April 4. S&P Global Market Intelligence previously reviewed the filings. One legal expert said such cases aren't uncommon.

"Inadvertent production of information happens with some regularity," said Craig Ball, a lawyer and computer forensics expert who works on issues of electronic discovery, where information is shared between parties in a lawsuit, in an interview.

While there are more serious cases where one party in a lawsuit attempts to hide information by redacting it in a court document, Ball said in a follow-up email, "for the most part (and absent some fundamental unfairness or serious impropriety), the courts allow the material to be reclaimed or redacted to make things right."

While keeping trade secrets confidential is an issue in many lawsuits, noted Goldman, the law professor, the California federal judge overseeing the case has also repeatedly argued both companies have tried to keep too much from the public's view.

"Judge [William] Alsup blew the whistle on the possibility that both parties were over-claiming confidential information in their filings, not because of trade secret concerns but because they didn't want to share the information with the public," he said, adding that the judge's message was "earlier and stronger" than other judges who have raised similar concerns.

In a March 29 hearing, Judge Alsup, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, told a lawyer from Uber it was "laughable" that an employment agreement would be kept from public view.

"I'm sorry, but the public's right to know what goes in on the federal courts is more important than the newspapers beating up on you in the press," he later added, according to a transcript obtained by S&P Global.

Judge Alsup also indicated that he would consider issuing a preliminary injunction blocking Uber from developing its self-driving cars regardless of whether Levandowski asserts his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and does not testify.

Lawyers for Uber and Google declined to comment. In a statement reported by several outlets, Angela Padilla, Uber's associate general counsel, called Waymo's claims "baseless," saying Uber will lay out its case publicly April 7. Waymo did not respond to requests for comment.

Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who researches self-driving cars, said that the suit could mark an early effort in a potential "patent war" that resembles the wireless industry's long-running legal battles over smartphone patents. "The world of automated driving used to be very small, with ideas and people moving pretty freely within and between various companies and universities. But now that there is real money to be made relatively soon, many of these structures have hardened into actual or potential conflicts. Eventually, some companies will discover they are falling behind and will try to monetize the patents they do own," he said in an email, noting these conflicts could eventually make it difficult for startups without patents of their own to enter the field.

Goldman noted that the suit against Uber marks a departure from other patent suits because Google and its Silicon Valley peers have rarely brought cases against rival companies. "There's a lot of skepticism towards enforcing [intellectual property] in court among rank and file Silicon Valley employees," he said. "So the fact that Google is so big, has so much money, has so much IP and plays in many different industries means that if it decides to become a repeat plaintiff, a lot of people are going to feel that."