Waymo-Uber Case to Set New Implications for California’s Start-Up Culture
The suit being brought by a division of Google Alphabet – Waymo – claims that Uber stole trade secrets regarding the technical details of self-driving cars.
Professor Shubha Ghosh serves as Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director of the Technology Commercialization Law Program, soon to be re-launched as The Intellectual Property Institute at Syracuse University College of Law. He says three main questions need to be answered for Waymo to prove its case.
What does this dispute say about employment practices and trade secret management by companies?
He says: “This case is particularly interesting because California has an open policy of an employee leaving a company to form her own start-up as Lavandowski did. Agreements by a departing employee not to compete with a previous employer are illegal under California law. But departing employees are not allowed to take the former employer’s property. So an interesting question is what implications this case will have for the start-up culture in California, and perhaps other states? If it is a clear case that Levandowski took Waymo’s trade secrets and Uber used them, then I would not expect any chilling effects on start-ups by departing employees as Waymo would be in its rights to go after Uber.
“However, if there is some ambiguity, then future employees and companies that hire departing employees or buy their start-ups may be more hesitant for fear of a potential trade secret law suit. It will be important to watch how the parties make their respective cases as well as who finally wins and why.”
Was the information in the file a trade secret?
He says: “Waymo has to prove that the information allegedly stolen was not generally known and developed independently within Waymo. From what I can tell, the technical specifications seem to meet the definition of a trade secret.”
Did Uber misappropriate (i.e. take) the trade secret?
He says: “Waymo would have to show that the trade secret was disclosed to Uber without Waymo’s permission or that Uber used the trade secret without Waymo’s permission. Uber could defend against this by showing that it either developed the alleged trade secret itself or did not use or learn about the trade secret. These defenses may be difficult to show if Waymo does establish that the information in the stolen files was a trade secret.”
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