Google Earth faces patent infringement claims


A German company has accused Google of infringing a patent that it claims covers the basic technology underpinning Google Earth.

Google Earth, a virtual globe, allows users to navigate the planet and view images of objects such as buildings and mountains.

New media company Art+Com claims the project infringes its (re-issued) ’550 US patent, entitled “method and device for pictorial representation of space-related data”.

The ‘550 patent protects Art+Com’s Terravision service, launched in 1996, which is a “networked virtual representation of the earth”.

Art+Com filed the claims through spin off company ACI at the US District Court for the District of Delaware February 20.

“The experience provided to users of Google Earth is remarkably similar to that offered by Terravision a decade ahead of Google”, says the suit, adding that subsequent Google applications, including Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Enterprise, provide a similar experience too.

When developing Terravision, the suit claims, Art+Com’s inventors worked directly with computer company Silicon Graphics (SGI), disclosing the intended capabilities of Terravision to SGI.

Michael Jones, the current chief technical officer of Google Earth, and Brian McClendon, currently in charge of the Google geo group, were employed at SGI when Art+Com was developing Terravision, the suit claims.

Jones and McClendon were also aware of Terravision and had access to proprietary information relating to Terravision, it adds, before they left SGI for software company Intrinsic Graphics.

In 2001, the suit says, Intrinsic Graphics founded spin off company, Keyhole, which “worked on geospatial data visualization that had started at SGI”. McClendon was employed by Keyhole and Jones served on its board of directors, the suit alleges.

Google acquired Keyhole in 2004, and a year later released the Google Earth application.

According to the suit, Art+Com’s director of technology Pavel Mayer emailed Jones, now of Google, in 2006 about Art+Com’s interest in licensing the ‘897 patent, which was a pre-cursor to the asserted ‘550 patent.

Later in 2006, Jones sent Patrick Paulisch of Art+Com an email stating that Google was “serious about buying the patent and can engage to do so right away,” the suit alleges.

But Art+Com was unwilling to sell the ‘897 patent for the amount (unspecified) that Google was willing to pay, it claims.

As a result of these talks, the suit says, multiple Google personnel were aware of a “substantial risk” that Google Earth, Google Earth Pro and Google Earth Enterprise infringe the ‘897 patent and its reissued ‘428 patent, which are “identical in substance to claims in the ‘550 patent asserted in this lawsuit”.

Art+Com claims Google directly and wilfully infringes the ‘550 patent, and wants an injunction and damages

Scott Partridge, partner at Baker Botts LLP, who is representing ACI, said the patent covers the basic technology which, for example, “allows Google Earth users to fly over the earth to a particular destination, and then look at details like weather, buildings, and other images”.

“It operates in a way that is remarkably similar to the Terravision system developed by Art+Com in the mid-90s, it is a fundamental patent, he said.”

The patent’s claims are fairly complex, said David Newman, partner at Arnstein & Lehr LLP, who added: “While I’m not an expert on Google’s technology, the claims are rather involved – they are very detailed – which is usually a sign that they could be designed around, if they haven’t been designed around already.”

He added that the suit alleges that Google “passed on buying the patent” – and maybe that’s because “they didn’t find the scope of the claims relevant to what they were doing”.

Google declined to comment.


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