A multi-million-shekel partnership and copyright lawsuit has been filed against popular navigating app Waze in the Tel Aviv District Court. The claimants, Roey Gorodish and Baruch Krotman, claim, through Adv. Itzhak Aviram, that Waze cofounder Ehud Shabtai appropriated the project for himself. They assert that the project belonged to a community of developers and users of which they were part of, and that it never belonged to Shabtai. The claimants say that this community promoted the FreeMap Israel project in 2006, and that Shabtai later changed its name to Waze, after having portrayed it as free shared social venture.
The claimants are demanding their share of the app's intellectual property from Waze Mobile and Google Israel, which acquired the app from Shabtai in 2013 for nearly $1 billion.
Aviram tried to conduct the lawsuit as a class action in the name of the community of users, but the District Court ruled that since the lawsuit does not involved customer-business relations or a consumer matter, only a personal lawsuit can be filed, not a class action. Exactly a year ago, the Supreme Court dismissed Aviram's appeal of the District Court's ruling, but made it clear that the allegations themselves were not groundless.
It all began with the founder's talkback
Shabtai founded a community venture named "FreeMap Israel - the Free Mapping Project of Israel" in 2006. The conditions for using the software in 2006 stated, "The purpose of the project is to create a free digital database of the map of Israel with the help of the community of users, and to ensure free use of the content, notifications, and their distribution for non-commercial use." Shabtai himself said in June 2006, "I needed my own map to serve as a basis for this navigational software, so I turned to the community, and the project was born… A development process is also involved here. I hope that people will slowly be able to contribute here, too."
A substantial portion of the claimants' proof is based on a talkback by Shabtai for a report in May 2006, when he wrote, "I can only say that I don't regard the maps as something that belongs to me, but to the community, so I can't foresee a situation in which I would demand payment or royalties for use of the information… There's no doubt that openness is an important thing, and I'm a great believer in it, but if I release the maps on an open license and close down the project the next day, I assume that this won't do a great service to the community… You are all obviously welcome to contribute to the project of mapping Israel and developing mapping/navigational software."
In another forum the same year, Shabtai wrote, "I have discovered that the only way to develop something free is to establish a community that will develop free maps by itself… There isn't much thinking in advance or advance planning here; I simply studied the technology and began applying it. So there's also no license stating clearly what is and isn't allowed to do with the information." Shabtai added, "The project needs a community just like the community needs the project. Therefore, if I do something that is not to the users' taste, the project can't continue."
Additional evidence for the statement of claim was taken from a FreeMap forum, which was very active in 2006. For example, Shabtai wrote in the forum, "Where help in development is concerned, I'll be glad to get help in developing the mapping software. There are quite a few things in it that can be improved: translation into Hebrew, adding navigational capabilities, improving the interface, and so forth."
The claimants allege that the many announcements that Shabtai wrote on the forum show that he was completely aware that what was created belonged to the users, not him. This was stated explicitly in some of these announcements. "The credit belongs to ar0903, who designed the new panel (as well as all of the icons on the screen)," and "The software relies on the map that we created together," and "Hilli recorded for us voice commands for the navigation. These commands are replacing the text-to-speech engine. We'll be glad to receive more recordings from other users."
"Value of the intellectual property: $800 million"
Shabtai also referred to the community's share when he decided to change the software's name from FreeMap to Waze. "This is it; we have successfully concluded the alpha stage, thanks to the amazing cooperation we got from all of you. We feel at this stage that the new version is good enough to release it freely, so there is no need to register in advance! Just download it and install it! In honor of the event, we have selected a name for the navigational software: Waze," he stated. The forum indicates that several of Waze's special programs were offered by the surfers, not by Shabtai.
Furthermore, the claimants also state that Ram Ariel, the national manager of the project, wrote, "There is a large group of people that came together to develop free and up-to-date navigational software. Developing the software and mapping the country requires a lot of work and patience. Everyone will contribute according to his or her ability and share in the benefits (communism personified)."
In the statement of claim, Aviram writes, "This is not a virtual community; it is made up of actual physical people. They took real actions, regarded themselves as part of the project, and undertook to establish the project because they saw it as a shared project, all parts of which could be used for free."
The statement of claim asserts that the usage rights were changed without the consent of the community of developers, who own the rights to what was created. In view of all of this, the claimants demand their share of the intellectual property in the project, which will be determined according to the number of community members - a number definitely known to the respondents, which is believed at this stage to amount to at least NIS 2.5 million."
Aviram said in response, "The lawsuit seeks to do justice to those who acted in support of Waze when it was founded. The actions that were taken in giving credit and money to only certain parties were improper, and we are confident that the court will rule accordingly. All of the evidence proves that Waze was the result of joint activity by many people, and their rights must be recognized, even if belatedly."
Waze said in response, "We comment on legal matters only in court, not in the media."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 29, 2020
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