Trade Secrets and Theatrics: Inside the Waymo v. Uber Courtroom

02/08/18 12:37 PM EST
By Greg Bensinger 

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal trial featuring two heavyweight technology companies is intriguing on its own. Toss in an unpredictable judge, A-list witnesses and some warlike rhetoric, and the legal battle between Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo and Uber Technologies Inc. turns into a spectacle that offers a revealing look into Silicon Valley culture and personalities.

On Thursday, as the fourth day began in a trial expected to last at least two weeks, neither party has notched any obvious big wins, but the proceedings have produced moments of levity and theatrics amid the serious allegations and rebuttals. Waymo, the self-driving offshoot of Google, claims Uber conspired to steal trade secrets to jump-start its own driverless car program. Uber denies the allegations.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup set a tone for the case on Monday by admonishing attorneys for rearranging his courtroom. The lawyers took over the first few rows of pews and created tripping hazards with a tangle of wires for their laptops. Dollies full of legal documents were wheeled in; one sagged under the weight of 16 boxes.

Each morning starting at around 6 a.m., dozens of reporters with laptops and coffee in hand queue outside the courtroom to secure seats and avoid the overflow room, where the proceedings are broadcast, sometimes spottily.

The first star witness, former Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick, took the stand on Tuesday and Wednesday. He gulped down four mini bottles of water on his first day of testimony, despite mostly monosyllabic answers. One reporter later joked to Mr. Kalanick's spokesman that the courtroom gallery had been impressed with the former CEO's bladder control.

Mr. Kalanick, 41 years old, reminded observers of his Silicon Valley roots with the vernacular he used in testimony and evidence, referring to an Uber project as "super duper," describing Alphabet CEO Larry Page as "unpumped" about the competition, and talking about "jam seshes" with his colleagues. Attorneys presented a photo of a whiteboard he had prepared including the cryptic phrases "Pittsburgh -- I know some shit," "yin yang," "west coast rap" and "disruptive attack vectors."

Waymo attorneys sought to portray Mr. Kalanick as the protagonist who schemed with a former Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, to steal trade secrets from Waymo and then cover their tracks to avoid legal repercussions. Mr. Kalanick has denied any theft in depositions and testimony, and Mr. Levandowski has previously indicated he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right against any possible self-incrimination.

Waymo attorneys showed emails, texts and notes with seemingly aggressive phrases attributed to Mr. Kalanick, such as "losing is not an option," "it is war time," "burn the village" and "pound of flesh." One curious phrase went viral on Twitter: "laser is the sauce," which Waymo attorneys said showed how highly Mr. Kalanick valued Google's technology involving lasers.

The attorneys squabbled with Uber's lawyers over whether they could show jurors a clip from the movie "Wall Street," featuring Gordon Gekko's famous "greed is good" speech that was texted by Mr. Levandowski to Mr. Kalanick. The texts included a winking emoji, the meaning of which the lawyers also debated. Judge Alsup ultimately allowed the clip, drawing a retort from Mr. Kalanick Wednesday that "it's a movie, it's fake."

Mr. Kalanick, who limited his water intake on Wednesday to less than two bottles, appeared relaxed, even flashing smiles during a break in a hallway alongside his father.

Judge Alsup, who made headlines earlier this year for blocking the Trump administration's effort to end the Dreamers program, is known for his blunt style and at-time brusque declarations. "Mr. Verhoeven, what is the problem? Let's move this along," the 72-year-old judge said Wednesday when an attorney for Waymo, Charles Verhoeven, momentarily consulted with a colleague.

The judge earlier noted he had inspired an ersatz Twitter account, but said it couldn't be his because he doesn't engage in social media. One tweet from the parody account read: "Get some sleep attorneys, 'cause I'm going to decimate the first one of you morons to forget to turn off your ringer tomorrow."

Judge Alsup lightened the courtroom mood at times, even during technical testimony centered around self-driving laser technology, known as lidar, used to pilot robot cars. When a Waymo attorney asked a forensics expert hired by Uber to examine a controversial acquisition whether he had believed he had "way more work to do," the judge interrupted and said, "Is that a pun? Way-mo work?," to guffaws from the gallery.

In a case pitting two of the world's best-known technology companies against each other, technical snafus abounded. An attorney for Uber had to place a folder in front of projector at one point to ensure sensitive documents weren't shown to the public. Another time, phone numbers from Mr. Kalanick's text-message history were momentarily displayed to the courtroom gallery.

The companies were plagued by awkward lags in the video testimony or documents being displayed, which Judge Alsup warned could hurt their arguments. He said Tuesday he would only allow a one- to two-second delay in the future.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 08, 2018 12:37 ET (17:37 GMT)

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