All your Terrain are Belong to Us

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.
Speak up.

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.

5 thoughts on “All your Terrain are Belong to Us

  1. Pingback: Ogle Earth

  2. Pingback: The Earth Is Square » Brownian Emotion and Some Missed Information…

  3. Heh. I was giving the folks on the WW IRC some benefit of privacy, assuming the IRC was at least considered private by the participants, though I know anyone could join in. Some of what’s said is not exactly stuff I’d want to put out there (and if you read this blog you know I put out a lot of crap).

    For anyone curious, the URL format is  where the URL is the date. That particular date had some interesting/relevant comments towards the end, from what I saw. I loved the bit about not digging Brownian Emotion 🙂

    On your points, what_nick, yes, I haven’t had spare focus to do OS development, though I’d love to and may be able to change that this year. However, my personal preference would be to keep the in-fighting to a minimum, as it doesn’t really buy the team anything IMO. I won’t tell you how to run your own project, though.

    It would be very interesting to see if Skyline goes after Microsoft now or in the future. Flight simulators that page data from disk would probably not be covered, as the streaming seems to require a network link. However, a MS virtual globe (or any MS game that streams terrain from a server) could be covered. I’d love to hear if Microsoft has been contacted by Skyline too. My guess is they have not, though MS may, in fact, have more cash on hand than Google…

    I won’t even begin to speculate on the possible reasons why Skyline would give MS a pass.

    As far as WW goes, I realize that some of the devs do get it that Skyline could go after WW (AdamHill on the IRC seemed the most clear about it). Others were saying that prior art would protect you, which could be a fairly naive assumption given the state of things lately. And in the two days of logs I skimmed (all I had time for), one person who seemed to be a NASA person (I gathered) said Skyline wouldn’t bother with WW.

    Why would SCO bother fighting Linux? What benefit did they see in suing an open source community (even indirectly)? If someone loses market share, even to a free and open product, then that’s a threat (even if you think the real threat was to MS). And Skyline sought an injunction against Google, which would have stopped GE cold. If SCO saw a way to make money or shake down companies for profit, that could be a motivation too.

    I’m not saying Skyline WILL sue NASA or that Skyline is necessarily SCO, but just that it’s a threat that hangs over you unless they officially grant license to their claimed technology. And seeking license to a dubious patent is not something I’ve seen many OS devs choose to do, or even support, as it tends to re-inforce the validity of the crappy patent and the crappy patent system. I’d hope to see the opposite, which is public support for Google specifically against this crappy patent, even if you want to criticize Google on other fronts. That’s what I was addressing in my post. Sorry if it wasn’t clear.

    On the data scraping, if MS owns its data and can give it away, good for them. Google doesn’t and as far as I know, can’t, Ben Discoe’s comments notwithstanding. I don’t see how anyone can judge it without hiring their own lawyer to read the contract and advise Google if they’re interpreting it incorrectly. I’m not a fan of DRM (which is essentially what we’re talking about), but the imagery providers set the rules for their data. I’ll make another post on this subject down the line, but for now, I’m repeating myself.

    Oh, on the last point, whether the Katrina Disaster effort would have been helped without GE, I’ve acknowleged WW’s fine work. But I’m being very specific here. Maybe it’s worded poorly. I’m talking about the hypothetical: If Keyhole had caved to Skyline (pre Google). If that had happened, I think it’s entirely possible WW would not exist in its present highly developed form, as I believe (correctly or not) that some of the impetus for improving WW came from making an OS alternative to the huge success of closed-source GE. If Skyline had been the only player in 2003, I don’t believe there would be as much demand among consumers for a virtual earth app, period. That’s just my opinion. But it doesn’t deny that WW folks DID do a lot of work on Katrina. Sorry for the confusion.

  4. Hi,
    Well I am Worldwind developer and your comments seem to come from someone who has never done any community based development.

    Just a few points:
    1:IRC Logs are public since it records all the decisions we take as a group.
    2:The Skyline lawsuit does not precisely say what streaming terrain does. They are more likely to sue microsoft next rather than Worldwind. We are an Open Community and we have no money. Microsoft on the other hand makes flight sim.
    3:The streaming idea in Worldwind are well publicized and server scripts for doing this are public.ERMapper or ESRI also stream terrain/imagery and so can you using a WCS(web content server) which is part of the Open Geospatial standard.
    4:Google and Digital Globe seem to have their contract terms mixed up.Anyway even if Google shares data or not people are still pulling it out.Microsoft has allowed this for Worldwind since there is no reasonable way to prevent it once the data is on a public web site unless you use HTTPS_AUTH and lock the site up.
    5: Turn up on IRC on freenode sometime and get a feel of how we work and infight.

    Thanks for keeping us in the Patent loop.


  5. It’s ok. No hard feelings anyway. What is blogging without some ribbing back and forth? 😉

    But really, you should come into the channel sometime. Even the meetings are logged (keeps sanity when people come asking “what did I miss?”)

    You do post some interesting stuff and keep it up.

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