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The Anthony Levandowski Indictment Helps Big Tech Stifle Innovation (newyorker.com)
45 points by pseudolus 45 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

"much of Silicon Valley’s genesis can be traced to Fairchild Semiconductor, which was founded by a group of young engineers who came to be known as the Traitorous Eight after they left their previous employer, en masse, to set up a rival company."


"is that California makes it so easy to betray, cheat, and steal. The state’s founding commercial laws generally prohibit companies from constraining their employees with “non-compete clauses.” As a result, for most of the state’s history, workers could jump from company to company, carrying secrets in their heads,"

Is the author really so obtuse not to realize there's a difference between "changing employers and using your knowledge at the new employer" and "changing employers and bringing a treasure trove of confidential documents with you"?

The author isn't trying to convey what's actually happened; they're trying to find a tone which resonates with the majority of readers to drive clicks. This piece didn't quite resonate, so they'll put out a new story in a few days about how Levandowski is a thief stifling innovation.

If the author wanted to report the facts, the headline would be about the court verdict and the nature of the documents stolen, not the author pontificating about Big Evil Tech.

Is this really a thoughtful or useful comment? It's a completely unsubstantiated smear of the writer because you don't agree with his take on the case.

It’s identifying what masquerades as factual, unbiased news reporting as a click driven opinion piece, no more and no less

It's not "masquerading as unbiased news reporting", it's a longform magazine essay. Of course the writer, who has been covering this story for years, is going to bring his own perspective to framing the story and exploring the implications of the case. The New Yorker is not a newswire.

What's happened here is you saw an article you didn't agree with and invented a completely fictional scenario to justify dismissing it. You're also fundamentally confused about the medium.

This seems to be part and parcel with the mindset endemic to HN where any coverage of any issue that doesn't 100% agree with the commentator's preconceptions is assumed to be Wrong and the author either malicious or incompetent.

Not sure why you're flaming OP repeatedly, Lewandowski's actions aren't remotely in the same moral sphere as merely working in the same area as you always have.

It's disturbing to see people whose job it is to inform instead playing games with judging based on tortured analogies. That's what one expects from a freshmen in a mandatory English or philosophy course, not a national publication's longdorm writer.

Yes, yes, the author probably is that obtuse.

Articles like this are part of a tendency among some people to think that by taking a contrary position they are somehow more insightful.

It's worth noting that Levandowski did not steal secrets and give them to a struggling startups - which is still wrong, but a lot more sympathetic.

He stole from one goliath and gave to another goliath - this behavior does not stimulate innovation.

But shouldn't this be a civil matter, not a criminal one?

People have probably been taking a treasure trove of documents with them for a long time. What has maybe changed is that companies have the technology to prove it and the appetite to litigate it at the same time.

Also, as I understand it Fairchild Semiconductor's success was due to technology which their previous employer just wasn't interested in researching. It was a pretty clear cut case of employees putting their skills and general technical knowledge to better use elsewhere, not "carrying secrets in their heads".

Apparently. The author doesn't even seem to understand how all corporations have legally binding NDA's and intellectual property rights have changed since the 1960's.

I've seen numerous HNers make that exact same point, usually with a snarky tone, so ... maybe it's not as obvious what the difference is, or everyone likes being the hipster contrarian.

(FWIW, I agree equating the two is ridiculous.)

Is there actually a difference? If he had memorized every detail in those documents, that would have been okay -- but taking the documents isn't? Is the former only okay because it seems practically unlikely for one human to memorize everything?

I think there is a difference. You can't really operate a competing company off of the contents of one person's brain. You need a documented body of knowledge that the whole company can refer to, with meta-information including how the research was undertaken.

Having the actual documents makes a huge practical difference. In the absence of the documents, the employee's new company basically has to re-do the research under the employee's guidance.

> can't really operate a competing company off of the contents of one person's brain. You need a documented body of knowledge that the whole company can refer to, with meta-information including how the research was undertaken

Some will disagree because there exist people who can memorize everything.

No they can't. And no you still need , because one person can't do all work.

Aren't there people with photographic memory?

Or you are saying that a person can't create a plan to be followed by people below him?

IANAL, but I assume that if someone actually memorized a confidential document, rewrote it from memory, and showed it to people at another company, it would be equivalent to just walking out the door with the physical document in the eyes of the law. judges tend not to be amused by these kinds of logical gymnastics.

Not in that sense, no. I am sure no one on Earth would be able to reproduce a 600x600 pic identical to original.

It would be a life's work for anyone to memorize 600kb text only file.

>If he had memorized every detail in those documents, that would have been okay.

He wouldn't have been okay. In most states, trade secrets don't have to be contained in a document or other recording. If you memorize the formula to Coca-Cola, it is still a trade secret. The dividing line between skill/experience/general-knowledge and a trade secret is fuzzy.

Though, its a lot harder to win a trade secret case when the alleged trade secret is only in the mind of the defendant because it's harder to show that you misappropriated it.

I'm not sure the point of this hypothetical. If he'd done something that nobody can possibly do, then yes, it would be different. We don't need to worry about people memorizing entire product schematics and then reproducing them.

there has to be a legal dividing line that separates using knowledge from theft, and I think that's a pretty good one

Law often eschews dividing "lines" though, in favor of fuzzy gray areas.

Somebody will inevitably reply that I'm wrong, and then I'll still travel slightly over the speed limit with no consequences for ~5 hours today.

It often does, and it also often avoids doing so. And there is a debate within the legal community about which approach is better.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bright-line_rule for a starting place to learn more about this.

Sure, but if you get pulled over while doing so the "Law" will be well within it's right to issue you a ticket despite your protestations of fuzzy gray areas. The law is quite clear here the fuzziness is purely in the discretion we grant enforcers of that law.

I wasn't drawing a distinction between the law as written and the law as enforced, because the latter is the one that matters in a practical sense. So sure, if you make that distinction, my comment doesn't make much sense.

The discretion police use is a huge gray area that is often problematic, but probably less problematic than not having a gray area.

Yes. There is a difference between general knowledge that enables you to reproduce an effect and specific documents and code that embody your old employers concrete implementation.

It seems very plausible that an engineer might be more productive at Company A rather than Company B. But that's less likely to be the case for some specific ideas in some documents; if Company A is better at using some ideas you'd think they'd generally be better at coming up with them in the first place. So in terms of the benefits to society it makes sense to facilitate engineers moving but not documents.

it would also create a weird incentive to avoid creating documents at all for ideas you believe a competitor might be able to execute better.

There has to be a difference. You shouldn't become such an experienced person at X or Y that it's actually illegal for you to change jobs now. If you are in a particular field you should be valuable to stay in that field, and changing jobs is a right. People need to ability to change jobs as much as they like and there should be no blacklist.

Even if that were possible, the societal harm caused by effectively making it illegal for someone to change jobs within their field is not worth the benefit.

The article really downplays the extent of Levandowski's greed and willfully criminal behavior. While Google paid him $120 million he was actively working on Otto, which he sold to Uber for almost $700 million (https://www.businessinsider.com/google-levandowski-120-milli...). This doesn't seem like a case that's going to set some dangerous new precident.

I find the sentiment of the article's title very disingenuous.

The distinction between moving a person's experience from one company to another, and a trove of documents has already been discussed here.

But the second thing is that's not the indictment that could be stifling innovation, it's the laws that forbid it.

If you think trade secrets stifle innovation, blame that laws, not the prosecutor how does his job, or the company that tries to apply existing laws.

Sounds like a reporter who doesn't really understand how a lot of this stuff works (didn't study it, never worked in the field?) but think he/she does. It seems really common.

He's missing the whole thing about the documents. If Levandowski steals the schematics the new companies circuit boards might look near identical. If he uses his knowledge at the new company to design new circuit boards they won't look near identical and be at risk of copyright infringement cause inevitably he'd change things & improve things cause that's the way people work.

Same thing with code.. if you copy & paste the code from your old employer into your new one's codebase that will look very different than if you design & write a new implementation to do something similar.

It doesn't necessarily sound like Levandowski did any of this kind of work himself though. It sounds more like he walked out the door with a pile of documents explaining the designs of people who worked for him.

Yeah no. It’s never been legal to steal massive collections of technical documents and it still isn’t.

It also remains to be seen how much real actual innovation Levandowski should be credited with, beyond his clear skill at talking people out of huge sums of money. It’s far from clear how disincentivizing this type of behavior will cause any problems.

Like is the premise here that there will be a causal relationship between this indictment and the progress of technology?

Levandowski is on the extreme end of the spectrum, but there's still going to be chilling effect.

Lightly paraphrasing Matt Levine in Money Stuff[1] (which I plug any chance I get), "Google is a big rich company with lots of lawyers to enforce its legal rights in civil courts: and it did so, and got a significant settlement out of Uber. It makes me a little nervous to think that big tech companies can also use the prison system to keep their engineers from competing with them."

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/authors/ARbTQlRLRjE/matthe...

I love Matt Levine, but I think he missed the point there, as I don't see anything wrong with what Google is doing, when taking into consideration everything Levandowski did.

What is the reason you think it should be more than a civil matter? It's certainly not obvious to everyone.

IANAL but because it involves theft (of information).

I don't think anyone (particularly Levine who is/was a lawyer and law clerk) is saying they are in some doubt as to whether there is a criminal law this falls under.

It just strikes people as wrong and kind of scary for it to be criminal and not civil. When things are stolen from ordinary people, and the police don't stumble across the act in progress, they are pretty blase. They don't say "oh, you have a dispute with someone? Well, we'll arrest them and put them in jail for a million years". You deal with it through insurance, and/or lawsuits, don't you? Because as a citizen, the police don't work for you.

It feeds into the anti-corporate feelings these days in a visceral way, so one may ask "how did we get here, and what purpose does it serve?"

This may sound too extreme and unpopular but I am against any form of intellectual property, period. I honestly believe the world without legal enforcement of IP rights would be a better world.

What incentivizes developing new ways of doing things, then?

There is a theory that the advantage comes from being the first-mover with a technology before your competition can adopt it. So innovation doesn't create a moat but short-term monetary benefits for your business.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both systems but society innovated for thousands of years before there was IP law to guide us.

This is grand theft, not some employee sneaking off with what he learned on the job. To top it, this was done in a calculated manner, weeks after he left, he started Otto - a truck driving company which was promptly acquired by Uber.

Why is Anthony Levandowski looking at prison time and John Carmack laughing it up with Joe Rogan?

Because, to my knowledge John Carmack didn't walk away with source code, detailed circuit diagrams, and technical documentation he stole from a company to start another company. The charge here is quite clear. Mr. Levandowski took something with him that the law said he wasn't allowed to take and then profited from it.

A jury trial in the ZeniMax suit found that Carmack did not misappropriate trade secrets[0], which is what this case is about.

0: https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/occve...

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