Some 18 months after Uber cleared the air with Waymo (an Alphabet/Google company) via a civil settlement then worth $245 million in Uber stock, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) unsealed a federal grand jury indictment of Anthony Levandowski, the individual central to the entire intellectual property (IP) theft of autonomous vehicle imbroglio. The 33-count indictment details the theft and attempted theft of Waymo’s trade secrets, largely centered around Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR).
The judge in the civil case referred the alleged theft of intellectual property to the DoJ in 2017 to determine whether criminal wrongdoing had occurred. In addition, the court ordered Uber to return to Waymo any intellectual property in its possession. Uber demanded Levandowski return to Waymo any intellectual property, and when Levandowski declined, he was fired.
According to the indictment, during Levandowski’s employment with Google in 2012, where he worked on autonomous vehicle development (which became Waymo in 2016), he created a side company called Odin Wave developing a “high-accuracy mapping LiDAR sensor.” Simultaneously, Levandowski was in charge of Google’s LiDAR team, developing the same technology.
Odin Wave morphed into Tyto LiDar and attempted to market its technologies to companies in the self-driving vehicle arena. Uber was one of those companies.
Again, while still an employee with Google/Waymo, Levandowski created yet another company that became known as Ottomotto in September 2015. In February 2016, Uber became an investor in Ottomotto and fully acquired the company by August 2016 for more than $600 million.
The internal investigation, as detailed in both the civil court records and the criminal indictment, revealed that Levandowski had downloaded 14,000 Google/Waymo documents prior to his abrupt departure from Google in January 2016.
While those documents make up the meat and potatoes of the 33-count indictment, the DoJ had all of the civil case exhibits and more at its disposal. For example, the 34-page due diligence report by Stroz Friedberg, which was conducted on behalf of Uber, provided a smoking gun—it revealed that Levandowski and other former Google employees who departed to join Levandowski’s Ottomotto had in their possession more than 74,000 images and 176,000 source code files.
Uber concluded that Levandowski had brought Waymo’s technology with him to Uber, though the company insisted that none had found its way into Uber’s technology stack. Nonetheless, the civil suit settlement gave Waymo a piece of the Uber ownership pie, valued at $245 million in 2018.
Levandowski pleaded not guilty to the charges of intellectual property theft at his Aug. 27 arraignment. The magistrate allowed Levandowski to be released after posting a secured $2 million bond, surrendering his U.S. and French passports and agreeing to wear a location monitor.
Offboarding Former Employees
Every company should have in place a regime surrounding the offboarding of personnel.
First, employers should get a declaration from the employee that they have returned any intellectual property belonging to the employer. If the employer finds out later the former employee did hold on to intellectual property—as was the case with Levandowski—the declaration will become quite valuable should the company take legal action.
The next step is for employers to review non-disclosure agreements with the outgoing employees and have them re-sign them. Doing so places a fresh reminder in the departing employee’s mind they are duty-bound to keep the trade secrets of their employer out of the hands of a future employer.
Finally, employers should terminate their access to any information systems and make it known to the former employee and peers a separation has occurred, to stem any unofficial sharing of trade secrets.
As U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson noted when discussing the indictment of Levandowski: “All of us have the right to change jobs; none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”