I love the smell of demonstrably frivolous lawsuits in the morning. Somebody called Jonathan Cobb has just filed one (PDF version) in Atlanta, Georgia asking for $25 million because, he alleges, Google stole his idea for Google Sky. Specifically:
12. Plaintiff shows that, beginning in 2006, as a contractor working in Georgia through WorkforceLogic USA, Plaintiff convened a Google internal e-mail discussion group, denominated googlesky(a)googlegroups.com, in which Plaintiff presented, advanced and refined the Google Sky concept and idea. When Plaintiff formed the e-mail discussion group, he listed as members of the group certain employees of Defendant Google who had managerial and operational responsibility for Google Earth and related programs.
And what did Cobb’s Sky comprise of?
13. Among the features presented and proposed by Plaintiff for Google Sky were the following:
(a) An interface similar to that of Google Earth with upgrades, including the presentation of a DayandNight view and related space imagery;
(b) An interface with differing telescope control systems;
(c) Access to and the ability to use GPS devices for positioning information ;
(d) Object tracking;
(f) The ability to subscribe to high resolution imagery from earth and space-based telescopes;
(g) Live image overlay and recording ability; and
(h) Optical modulation measurement.
The main problem for Cobb is not that the idea of Google Sky was an obvious one. It was definitely an idea that was “in the air” as soon as Google Earth was released — the notion of applying Google Earth’s superior visualization tools to datasets other than Earth (Moon, Mars, the sky) was an obvious next extension of Google Earth. The hard bit, then, was not so much having the idea as being in a position to make it happen.
No, the main problem for Cobb is that he is demonstrably not first person to have proposed and suggested the idea.
Cobb’s lawsuit says that sometime in 2006 (“beginning in 2006”), he convened a Google group that had some Google Earth team members as subscribers in which he would eventually come to pitch his idea for Google Sky. But on February 25, 2006, Ogle Earth carried a post entitled Mooting Google Sky. It began like this:
Alberto Conti, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Center in Baltimore, writes on his blog about the potential for using the technology behind Google Earth to help visualize the wealth of astronomical information that’s available but not easily accessible, currently.
Alberto’s writes that he suggested “Google Sky” to John Hanke when they met a few weeks ago, and that he will be getting in touch with Google Earth VP of engineering Brian McClendon in the next few days to organize to set up a visit to STSC for some brainstorming. Ah, the combined wonders of blogging and search — Brian, you can head on over to Alberto’s blog now and preview his pitch:-)
How did I find Alberto’s post? I subscribe to searches (including Google blog searches) for certain terms that are delivered to me as RSS feeds. Alberto’s post showed up because he used Google’s Blogger publishing tool. What happened next? I got an email from Brian asking (not demanding) that I take down the post because “Google doesn’t really like to get publicity about things before they happen”. Brian had also talked to Alberto, who had taken down his post (hence the dead link in the above text snippet). I replied that as a courtesy to Alberto (who thought the blog was private as it had no links out) I would be willing to remove reporting of his pitch to Google but that I would mention in the replacement text that the removal of the contents of a post titled “Mooting Google Sky” came at the request of Google. As a result, the post was not changed. Lucky!
Fast forward to August 2007, when the Google Sky feature in Google Earth went live with version 4.2. Blogging the event was one Alberto Conti, whom it turns out had remained involved in the collaboration between Google and the Space Telescope Science Center to ultimately produce the Google Sky. Alberto’s blog post documents an email exchange between him, John Hanke and Brian beginning February 7, 2006, to stake the claim that it was Alberto’s idea.
Whether or not you think publishing private email correspondence on a public blog is proper netiquette, it does show that the pitch that Google ended acting on was made starting early February 2006. This does not mean that Google had not thought about a Sky feature earlier than then, but it does prove that the project to make Google Sky began no later.
[PS – I realize there is a whole list of blogging to do items for another links post, but alas I must travel to Luxor for a few days now. Back Tuesday.]