The much-ballyhooed legal battle over trade secrets concerning self-driving automobile technology involving Uber took its latest (and perhaps final) turn last week, when engineer Anthony Levandowski was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay over $700,000 in restitution.
Embroiled in the middle of a billion-dollar dispute between tech giants, Levandowski had previously pled guilty to the single count of trade secret theft and was already facing a $179 million judgment awarded to his former tech employer. Naturally, the length of prison sentence and the amount of restitution had been of particular interest to the business and legal communities to see what kind of message would be sent by US District Judge William Aslup. But interestingly, it was another (non-traditional) aspect of the sentence that perhaps sent the clearest and most impactful message to tech companies and their employees: the requirement that Levandowski, whom the judge described as a “good person” and a “brilliant man”, must give speeches to the public entitled “Why I Went to Federal Prison.”
The stakes have always been high for the litigants in this drama. At issue was Levandowski’s work with Otto, a self-driving trucking company he founded and sold to Uber in 2016. His former employer alleged that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 highly confidential files detailing the technology he was able to obtain access to arising from his prior employment, and brought said files to help develop the technology at Otto (now owned by Uber). Google and Uber settled their lawsuit days into trial on the courthouse steps two years ago, resulting in the transfer of 0.34 percent of Uber’s equity. But that trial shed a spotlight on the actions of Levandowski, resulting in criminal charges and indictment, and his eventual guilty plea to the single count of trade secret theft (out of a total of 33 criminal charges levied against him).
Prosecutors argued for a multi-year prison sentence on the basis of the massive scale and impact of the theft, Levandowski’s alleged lack of remorse and the fact that Levandowski continued to develop self-driving technology for yet another company.
Attorneys for Levandowski remained adamant that the theft was overblown and sensationalized as a result of the high stakes drama played out publicly, and that there is no evidence that Levandowski shared any of the alleged trade secrets with anyone (including Uber). When factoring COVID-19 and his alleged underlying respiratory issues, they suggested to the court that Levandowski deserved at most a year of home confinement.
Judge Aslup, while steadfastly respectful of Levandowski as a good person and as a brilliant man who the world would learn a lot listening to, nevertheless found prison time to be the best available deterrent to engineers and employees privy to trade secrets worth billions of dollars to competitors: “You’re giving the green light to every future engineer to steal trade secrets,” he told Levandowski’s attorneys. “Prison time is the answer to that.” To further underscore the importance of deterring similar behavior in the high stakes tech world, Judge Aslup required Levandowski to give the aforementioned public speeches describing how he went to prison.
Judge Aslup also left no ambiguity when discussing Levandowski’s earning prospects even after this sentence: “I think he’s on the verge of hundreds of millions of dollars and he’s just in a bad patch right now.”
So while this sentence certainly may provide pause and a strong deterrent for other employees of emerging tech companies with access to highly confidential and proprietary information, it remains to be seen whether this deterrent will be strong enough where there are perceptions that the rewards outweigh risks.