German startup vs. Google — Is it worth watching The Billion Dollar Code series?

While the discussion about the Facebook files continues, Netflix has released a series about startups discovering another hi-tech giant in an unsightly light:  The Billion Dollar Code. AIN.UA wants to share with you our impressions of this series.

What is this series about?

The Billion Dollar Code is a German series directed by Robert Tahlheim for Netflix. Based on a true story — a lawsuit of the German company Art+Com against Google after Google got their technology to create Google Earth. The series consists only of four episodes, and the plot follows two interconnected timelines: the current time (2017) showing their debates at a court and the past (the 1990s) when Art+Com was founded.

Based on a true story

In the 1990s, a German startup that we know as Art+Com has developed Terra Vision, a geodata visualization service, for Deutsche Telekom. In 2014, Art+Com accused Google of stealing its product’s code to create the popular Google Earth service. And they sued the hi-tech giant in Delaware Federal Court for patent infringement.

The German company claimed that Google Earth allegedly uses technology protected with the U.S. Patent No. RE44,550 (Method and Device for Pictorial Representation of Space-related Data). They wanted to get a compensation of $100 million for this infringement.

“Google Earth bears remarkable similarities to ART+COM’s commercial system, which was developed nearly a decade prior to Google’s introduction of Google Earth; and Google’s infringement has been willful,” said the article published on the German enterprise’s website on February 20, 2014.

Their main claim was that the first version of TerraVision was developed using Onyx computers of Silicon Graphics which were the most powerful available at the time. Art+Com also worked directly with Silicon Graphics, whose two ex-employees later were hired by Google to executive positions: Michael Jones, CTO at Google Earth, and Brian McClendon, VP of Engineering at Google. The German company claimed that they both knew of TerraVision and its performance, and Jones even had access to the proprietary information of Art+Com. During proceedings, the Germans presented screenshots of TerraVision from 1996 and screenshots of Google Earth from 2014 to show their similarity.

Image credit: Art+Com

More details you can find here. As a result, the German art collective lost; the verdict, in that case, was for Google, and the jury declared the TerraVision patent invalid.

There is also an article of Avi Bar-Zeev, one of the developers of the first version of Google Earth in 1999, where he acknowledged the innovation of the Art+Com product but denied the accusation that the code had been stolen: “I’d honestly never heard of ART+COM or TerraVision until a month ago. I wasn’t contacted for the lawsuit or the series…” wrote Avi.

Is it worth watching?

The best illustration of the whole series is a duel between the lawyers of Art+Com and Google:

— I see what you are trying to achieve with your sentimental stories: you are trying to make computer-era Robin Hoods of them!

— Maybe it is what they really are.

The series producers told us a story of two characters: Carsten, a designer, and Juri, a programming genius, who became friends with common interests. Carsten wanted to create the greatest work of art ever, and Juri knew how to help him achieve that.

Screenshots in the article: The Billion Dollar Code

Together they developed an innovative product — geographical information visualization service, identical to Google Earth — at a time when it didn’t exist.

On the one hand, the series can awake nostalgia among the viewers: it contains a fragment from the legendary Steve Jobs’s presentation of the first Macintosh, it mentions the calculator Z22, the speech of young Bill Gates about personal computers that everybody will be able to afford.

You see true geek characters who love technology and art, quoting Star Track episodes, discussing famous sci-fi writers like Neal Stephenson (who inspired Jeff Bezos to fly into the space) and playing virtual ping-pong on a screen made of highlighted empty beer bottles. And it is exactly the same version of the Atari game. They even visit a festival in the 90s similar to Burning Man.

On the other hand, you see naive romantic innovators tricked and defeated by the mega-corporation. We didn’t like episodes where you could play startup-bullshit bingo because of so many cliches like visionary, revolution, innovation, and mentioning Jobs in vain.

Here the characters don’t create just a service; no, they want to change the world “to make everybody happy, for free, that nobody leaves unhappy.” They believe that their software will erase the borders between countries and nations. And during one of his monologues, Juri even describes an idea that sounds similar to the trend of modern startups — the “Metauniverse” (that’s what Facebook currently does). The atmosphere of the series, in general, feels like David Fincher’s The Social Network or Silicon Valley from HBO. If you like those two, you will love The Billion Dollar Code. However, in our opinion, it is worse than both of them. And there are almost no jokes.