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Uber hit with billion dollar lawsuit by man who claims Travis Kalanick stole his idea

By Sarah Lacy , written on May 14, 2015

From The News Desk

Ok, we haven't seen this before. We saw the case between the Winklevosses and Mark Zuckerberg turned into a film, but a trailer to an actual lawsuit?

Today, a billion dollar lawsuit (embedded below) was filed by Kevin Halpern alleging that Travis Kalanick, Garret Camp, and early Uber investors Bill Trenchard, Bill Gurley and Scott Belsky stole his idea and cut him out to create Uber. The rhetoric around it is certainly intense. In an email to Pando, the firm said, "It is deadly serious, it is not someone grasping at straws."

I don't know enough about the particulars to know whether the case has merit. It won't surprise anyone that I find bad behavior at Uber plausible. But even I see a few strange things about this.

The first is that Kevin Halpern made his statement via... a movie trailer (also embedded below)? It's certainly an unusual approach. And in some ways, it allows him to visually tell his story and make his complaint very clear in a way legalese might not. But a few things made me cringe. There is a lot of "gotcha" video techniques -- including a place where the video adds a speech bubble over Kalanick's face saying something he didn't say.

And frankly, it made me a little queasy how many clips of me had found their way into the video. Hopefully it goes without saying that I didn't ask to be included, nor did I give permission. The first I knew about the lawsuit was when Halpern's lawyer emailed me to say it had been filed. Just because I think Uber has done deeply unethical things against journalists and has a culture of misogyny and unaccountability, doesn't mean they are guilty in this case.

Further, I'm cringing a bit at the comparison to the Winklevoss suit, by Halpern's own counsel. As I've said repeatedly, I think there's a huge difference between sharing an idea and building a company. Just because you have an idea, doesn't mean you could have built the same company. And as Halpern himself acknowledges, Celluride was started before the days of iPhones and Android. It seems to me that significantly changes the market opportunity and the challenge of building it.

It also doesn't help the optics of Halpern's case that he previously made headlines when he sued over founders shares for OfferPal. Halpern's attorney confirmed by email that his client is the same Kevin Halpern involved in that suit which was partially settled and partially dismissed.

Halpern's claims in the video about the work he did on Celluride or his contacts with the various defendants seem certainly plausible. But whether or not Uber did anything wrong will come down to the squishy elements of the video: Allegations that Trenchard, Kalanick, and others were intentionally gaining his trust to steal research and trade secrets.

This is what's unfortunate about a company like Uber that behaves horribly so much of the time: It invites this kind of lawsuit, because a lot of people will nod and say "probably." We know they've played dirty against rivals like Lyft, so why -- the thinking might go -- wouldn't he do the same to a former business partner? And I'm not sure further precedent of a guy with an idea suing a team that actually turned that into a massively valuable business is a good thing for the Valley and entrepreneurs.

It will be fascinating to see what Uber does here. I can't imagine a personality like Kalanick paying Halpern off to make him go away; but Kalanick has also been fighting tooth and nail to keep his emails from falling into discovery in other lawsuits Uber is engaged in. In my totally speculative opinion, it's the discovery-- less than this case itself-- that could really hurt him. Remember the IMs by Mark Zuckerberg? And the Evan Spiegel Snapchat emails? I have no doubt something incredibly ugly lurks in Kalanick's inbox, whether it's about Halpern or not.

Here's the crazy video:

And the legal complaint: