I recently watched “The Billion Dollar Code” limited-series on Netflix, which claims that Google Earth is a rip-off of a project called TerraVision, created by the German art collective ART+COM. The show chronicles their lawsuit against Google, which ultimately failed.
I am drawn to stories of inventors having their work stolen by greedy assholes. I can genuinely relate to the inventors in this case, and their various struggles. If someone is owed credit or money for their invention, I want them get it. And I truly respect the early and innovative work done by ART+COM.
However, as a co-founder of the startup that built the original “Google Earth” PC app in 1999, and as one person who wrote (from scratch) many of the bits they claim are stolen, I am in a pretty good position to call bullshit on this.
I wrote a blog post in 2007 called “How Google Earth [Really] Works,” which explains in simple terms what’s unique about GE and its patents. You’d think anyone trying to answer “how does Google Earth really work?” would read it.
I’d honestly never heard of ART+COM or TerraVision until a month ago. I wasn’t contacted for the lawsuit, the series, or the “making of” featurette. I was mildly aware of an earlier and similar lawsuit by another company, also failed.
At Keyhole, I worked with the two brilliant real people named in the ART+COM lawsuit who were represented as a single fictional “Brian Andersson” character here. I imagine this was to avoid charges of defamation. One of the two sadly passed away this year. The reason that “Brian” was named in the suit was apparently that ART+COM believes “Brian” learned of their algorithm and then secretly recreated it. They claim “Brian” told them “Google Earth wouldn’t exist without you.”
For the ART+COM side, the series used two more fictional characters: “Juri Müller” and “Carsten Schlüter.” The “Making Of” special episode on Netflix highlights the four or five real people who reportedly built TerraView. I guess their names were fictionalized for dramatic purposes?
ART+COM filed its now-invalidated patent in December 1995, which was the basis of the real lawsuit two decades later. One month earlier, Silicon Graphics (SGI) filed a patent for “Clip Mapping,” which supports high quality whole-earth 3D rendering (flat earth or spherical), as explained in my blog post above. Google Earth uses a kind of clip mapping that goes beyond what SGI had done.