Google is being sued by a German design and engineering company over allegations that its Google Earth product infringes on the patents held for a similar product invented by the company, ART+COM, back in 1994.
The lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 20 in United States District Court in Delaware, claims Google Earth displays "a remarkable similarity to the Terravision system developed by ART+COM in the 90s and whose technology its inventors had patented back then," according to a statement from Berlin-based ART+COM.
"ACI, which is a spin-off of ART+COM AG, charges that Google Earth products infringe U.S. Patent No. RE44,550, entitled 'Method and Device for Pictorial Representation of Space-related Data,' relating to its Google Earth Technology," the statement continues.
The lawsuit alleges that "Google Earth can be traced directly to ACI's patented method through Google Earth's 'development' history, including current executives." The complaint also alleges that "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."
ART+COM's lawsuit alleges that two of Google's current executives—Michael Jones, the chief technical officer of Google Earth, and Brian McClendon, the head of the Google Geo Group and vice president of engineering for Google Maps, "previously worked for companies that had access to information regarding the implementation of Terravision."
Terravision "is a networked virtual representation of the earth based on satellite images, aerial shots, altitude data and architectural data" that "serves as an environment to organize and access information spatially" when accessed by users. "Users can navigate seamlessly from overviews of the earth to extremely detailed objects and buildings."
The lawsuit alleges that "both Jones and McClendon were aware of Terravision and generally familiar with its capabilities from their tenure with SGI," where they previously worked before joining Google.
"Terravision was developed using Onyx computers of Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) which were the most powerful available at the time for processing and displaying graphical data," an ACI spokesman said in a statement. "In the course of developing Terravision, our inventors worked directly with Michael T. Jones when he was at SGI, where he was our designated contact person. We understand SGI subsequently used Terravision as a demonstration of the capabilities of their Onyx computers."
ART+COM declined a request from eWEEK for further comment about the lawsuit.
In a prepared statement, Scott Partridge, the lead counsel for ACI in the case, said: "The ART+COM patent is not directed to a mere feature of Google Earth. Instead, the patent covers the basic technology that, 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."
Google Earth began as a Google service in 2005 after Google's 2004 acquisition of Keyhole Inc., which previously created a product called EarthViewer 3D, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that ART+COM executives have in the past actively communicated with Google since 2006 about concerns relating to possible patent infringement involving Google Earth, but that those communications have never resolved the matter.
ART+COM is asking the court to find Google guilty of willful patent infringement in the case and is seeking unspecified damages and attorney's fees in the case.
Through a spokesman, Google also declined to comment on the lawsuit when approached via email by eWEEK.