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Why Waymo might play the Michael Douglas ‘Greed is Good’ speech in court

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Waymo v. Uber, day 2

Illustration by William Joel

Even before the jury took their seats on the second day of Waymo v. Uber, the lawsuit reached a new milestone of absurdity as Waymo argued that they should be allowed to play a clip of Michael Douglas’ “Greed is Good” speech from Wall Street (1987). Uber would really rather they not.

Ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski were in frequent contact, and forensic analysis uncovered countless deleted text messages, including one where, according to Waymo, Levandowski says, “wink wink” and links to a YouTube video of Michael Douglas’ famous speech.

Judge Alsup, not immune to the mounting silliness of the proceeding, joked that it was the “best moment in Hollywood.” After the laughs died down, lawyers for Uber objected that it was a “free-floating work of fiction” and that it was totally irrelevant to the lawsuit.

The judge wasn’t so sure. The idea that Kalanick and Levandowski were “in cahoots” is key to Waymo’s narrative. If the two of them both resonated with the “Greed is Good” speech, that could say something about their relationship.

That’s not so far off the mark. If faced with a list of unattributed quotes, most would be hard-pressed to identify which were from Travis Kalanick and which were from Gordon Gekko. “I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them!” sounds like something Kalanick would say to Bloomberg Businessweek. It certainly isn’t far off from Uber investor Shervin Pishevar’s unforgettably weird “iniquitous taxi cartels” rant.

Journalists didn’t line up outside the courtroom as early as six in the morning to hear about printed circuit boards (PCBs) and schematics, or to squint at the spreadsheets of IPs and mac addresses that show that Anthony Levandowski downloaded 14,700 documents (a total of 9.74 gigabytes) from Google before leaving the company.

Rather, every media publication in San Francisco and then some, had sent over a reporter in hopes that Travis Kalanick would have a meltdown on the stand. But they were to be disappointed. Kalanick’s suit was immaculate, his face was impassive, his voice was modulated. The only sign of nervousness was his constant sipping of water, going through four small bottles in less than one hour of testimony.

But a calm Kalanick is still Travis Kalanick. At his worst, he’s Gordon Gekko; at his best, he’s still a smug and unrelatable San Francisco techie. Hearing this perfectly ironed man explain the idea of “jam sesh” and acknowledge that “laser is the sauce” was enough to make the jury grimace like they want to strangle everyone involved in this lawsuit.

When the day’s proceedings wrapped up, a fleet of black SUVs lingered on Turk Street waiting to whisk Kalanick away. TV cameras pressed up against the glass of the courthouse hoping to catch him on the way out.

Travis Kalanick’s welcome wagon outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco.
Photo by Sarah Jeong / The Verge

I gave into a moment of fatigue and called a Lyft to get to The Verge’s office. “Are you a lawyer?” my driver asked. When he found out I was covering Waymo v. Uber case, he barraged me with a series of increasingly sophisticated questions. Could the two parties still settle even though a jury had been picked? Did it actually look like Uber had misappropriated trade secrets? What was the difference between a trade secret and a patent? What was the difference between professional experience and a trade secret? And was the jury allowed to hear background about Levandowski and Kalanick, all of the things that could make them look like terrible human beings?

A lot of that stuff, I told him, was excluded, but there was still plenty that had made it in to make both Levandowski and Kalanick look awful. “I know Travis,” said my driver. “And if I was on that jury, and I had to decide, ‘Is Travis Kalanick capable of this?’ I’d say, hell yes.”

Kalanick will be testifying some more tomorrow morning, and Waymo is far from done with him. The jury may very well get to hear Michael Douglas lovingly intone that greed is right and good.

In the past, the Bay Area might have taken pride in its tech industry: Jobs and Wozniak playing pranks on each other in Berkeley, Brin and Page tinkering around in their Menlo Park garage, the hometown kids making good. Maybe the new crop of tech companies haven’t endeared themselves to the potential San Francisco jury pool in quite the same way. Or maybe the city has soured on the tech industry at large. The federal courthouse, situated in the notorious Tenderloin district, is surrounded for blocks by trash, urine, and worse. The tech-affluent look straight ahead when walking by the displaced and desperate people who sit on or loiter by the sidewalks.

Waymo says that Uber took their trade secrets so they could replace their human drivers with robot cars, because human drivers simply cost too much. They can’t harp too much on the cruelty of it all: they are, after all, in the same business of putting human beings out of work. In a time of increasing income inequality and deteriorating public infrastructure, greed doesn’t look so good.

Correction: The article originally stated that Kalanick sent Levandowski the “Greed is Good” video. Levandowski sent the text to Kalanick.