Google Sky lawsuit — demonstrably frivolous

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), 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;

(e) Forecasting;

(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.

(Via InformationWeek. CNET also has an article, which additionally quotes an internet law expert.)

[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.]

8 thoughts on “Google Sky lawsuit — demonstrably frivolous”

  1. Well.. if we want to go that route.. WorldWind had the sky layer before that so he stole the idea from NASA before Google stole it from him… or maybe they skipped him and stole it directly from NASAWW.. so we will have to sue for 50 million then! ;~)

  2. I published my recollection (with emails) on my blog just because I wanted to post a record of how I got in touch with Google. There was nothing confidential in those emails after 1.5 years.

    In all honestly, many many many people had thought about GoogleSky well before my email to Google. I was just the person that got in touch with Google from the Space Telescope Science Institute and suggested the addition of Hubble data to GoogleSky: undeniably the most striking images of the cosmos!

    The idea of a “sky browser” similar to GoogleSky was born well before GoogleSky or WorldWind and should be credited to the late Jim Gray (who developed Terraserver for Microsoft) and Alex Szalay (the mastermind behind the National Virtual Observatory and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey SkyServer). Alex, being an astronomer, immediately realized the potential of “map browsers”. Google made use of the Google Earth canvas to extend it to the sky.

  3. We had discussions between Space Telescope personnel, individuals involved in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and various others

    along with Wayne Rosing (see Wikipedia) of

    Google in 2005.

    It was referred to as “Google Sky” then in those discussions and there may be email documentation to demonstrate that. (I am sure the Google personnel involved can use their

    search engines to find their mail referring to

    this idea in their own email archives!)

    Lots of people were working with providing public access to astronomical data through all sorts of interfaces that include AT LEAST World Wind, WWT, the National Virtual Observatory, the Digital Universe, etc. etc. including Google Earth long before 2006.

  4. I love when the kooks come out of the woodwork.

    If anyone thinks the ‘sky’ concept hadn’t been discussed years prior to Google Earth (sorry, Keyhole) — they’re obviously not in professional circles.

    Is this similar to the commonality of class action attorneys attempting to take companies out any opportunity they can (whether in silent partnership with a competitor or for more personal gains)? Seems to be more common these days.

    I’d love to see people get counter-sued when they bring these kinds of cases. That’ll put an end to it real quick.

  5. All I wanted to comment on was the fact that I initiated contact from the Hubble Space Telescope to Google. While others were talking I got in touch with Google. That’s it. I am not the father of this idea, just someone that got the ball rolling.

    Undeniably, GoogleSky is what is it today because of Hubble’s stunning images, so I think I have reason to be a little proud.

    Finally, all emails posted on my blog were not confidential.

  6. Apparently Michael Jones of Google claims he discussed Google Sky with astro-folks in Hawaii in

    2005, but us astro-folks have not verified that

    yet or know what context…

    Nice counter move though.

  7. ok so here is something that everyone needs to know.

    I worked for google at the time that Jon “the tool” Cobb worked there. He like all other employees/contractor signed an NDA and an Intellectual Properties form before beginning working for google.

    The Intellctual Properties form states that while under the employment of google – any ideas, patents, or inventions created while employed at google would be google property unless the proper procedures are followed to protect the rights of the creator. Jon originally drew his idea on a napkin which he obtained from the google kichen.

    The google group he start was originally started on an internal developer group.

    Jon has no case whatsoever and will end up broke, homeless, and on the street before it is all over with.

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