if you read my previous blog post called "And Thy Name is Fud" down to the comments, you saw a few NASA World Wind developers showing up to comment about how bad Google is for such things as not letting World Wind pull imagery from GE’s servers (though it’s not theirs to give). Here’s a followup.
I tried to get the WW folks interested in learning more about this miserable Skyline patent, because it could very easily affect them too. At least one of them was surprised to learn it existed at all. Google doesn’t talk about it much. They probably can’t.
But I’m not Google. Right now, Skyline is suing Google for who knows how much money plus the right to stop Google Earth from existing until such and such demands are met (they failed in that last part, at least thus far).
It all started as a lawsuit against Keyhole. Keyhole, if you’re not aware, built EarthViewer circa 2000 (and before), and released it publicly in 2001, sold the company to Google in 2004, and became Google Earth. Skyline received a patent for streaming terrain in late 2002. NASA World Wind was publicly released in 2003, according to their official history. Yet despite these dates, Skyline has targeted Keyhole/Google for infringement of their patent, issued in late 2002…
A few of the World Wind developers seem savvy enough to "get it" that Skyline may be going after Google now because they’re the most prominent and wealthy, same as the Blackberry was the primary target for that particular lawsuit (and they lost big-time). However, more of the key players seem to think it’s just a grudge match against Google, for pissing rights, perhaps. The World Wind folks were kind enough to link to my blog via their chat log, which is publicly accessible as HTML for some reason. I won’t post transcripts or URLs. But I was certainly curious and entertained to read the ensuing (no pun) dialog, and I will comment on this one aspect.
It is sad to me that developers, especially open source developers, won’t stick up for other developers, even if they’re competitors, when they know something is happening in their domain that’s simply wrong. (Bull_UK gets kudos for blogging it at least). My guess is that if World Wind ever gets big enough to threaten Skyline, WW folks will find themselves in the same boat and have no choice but to settle without a fight–esp. if Google loses. But I sense either a fear of involvement, or a desire to see Google take a dive. I don’t know which. But either way, it’s a losing strategy, IMO, unless they get Skyline to officially (and freely) license-out their technology, which would make the WW developers on par with traitors in the open source world for backing the patent war-horse. Otherwise, they’re always at risk, even if Google wins on the claims of infringement, but the patent stands.
The same thing goes for Second Life and any other MMOs and virtual globes that stream terrain, which could theoretically fall under the dominion of this patent. It doesn’t limit itself to virtual globes. And the claims are so broad that any system in which some software client asks for a chunk of 3D terrain from some remote server could be considered in violation, especially if the client asks the server for higher resolution of said terrain over time, which is the obvious way to do it. Open standards like VRML and X3D/XSG could even be considered in violation if a Web3D client requests terrain from a remote server (i.e., using external references vs. in-line), even though the specs pre-date the filing of this patent.
That’s how bad this patent is–it could threaten an industry standard, even though there’s little difference between a mountain and a cube from VRML’s point of view. Terrain is as basic to 3D worlds as points and polygons, and no one has successfully patented those (some have tried). My opinion is that none of those allegations of infringement should prevail, nor should this patent even exist. But it doesn’t stop a company flush with cash from threatening to sink anyone with limited resources with extended legal proceedings. Even if they’re wrong, even if there’s prior art, they can often win by sheer attrition.
I’ve seen no public comment from Skyline denying any intention to own streaming 3D terrain as a technology. That denial, I’d love to see, for whatever it’s worth. They’re certainly not shy about issuing lawsuits. Yet despite that, there’s no industry push-back to go after the poor patent or to take a stand against this kind of abuse, whether or not you want to see Google take a fall.
These are all my opinions, but I seem to be one of the few speaking out. For whatever reasons, people just aren’t paying attention like they were with the Blackberry suit, even though we see examples of Google Earth being used to save lives . They just got an award for their coverage of the Katrina disaster, helping rescuers find trapped residents. None of that would have happened had Keyhole caved and shut their doors under threat. I’m glad Google is fighting this. But I can only hope they win.
Read the patent.
Decide for yourselves.
End note: I’m all for Skyline making the best product they can and competing fairly with all comers and even winning in the marketplace if that’s how it turns out. But patents and lawsuits like this are bad for everyone’s business, Skyline included. It’s their own damn fault if they’re too ignorant to see how they should focus their energies on making their product better, vs. trying to stifle competition.