July 18, 2024


Unlimited Technology

Netflix drama pits German hackers in a legal battle against Google

When Google Earth launched in 2001, the free web program allowed users to explore geography in entirely new ways, zooming seamlessly through satellite imagery to visit any street in the world from their desktops. It felt like an revolutionary innovation, giving users the ability to travel the globe like never before.

But as shown in the German Netflix drama, “The Billion Dollar Code,” that technology wasn’t actually as new as it seemed.

The four-episode miniseries is reminiscent of AMC’s critically lauded computer industry drama, “Halt and Catch Fire,” mixed with a dash of the startup scrappiness in “Silicon Valley,” as well as the best elements of a legal procedural. It features a mixture of dialogue in English and subtitled German, with a production value that looks, dare I say, prestigious. It’s yet to crack Netflix’s Top 10, but given the recent popularity of foreign language shows like “Lupin” and “Squid Game,” I expect to see it in the service’s trending tab soon.

Leonard Schleicher, Marius Ahrendt and Lukas Loughran in "The Billion Dollar Code."

Leonard Schleicher, Marius Ahrendt and Lukas Loughran in “The Billion Dollar Code.”

Courtesy of Netflix

The plot follows the rise and fall of a Berlin startup called ART+COM. Comprised of former hackers and artists, the company used a grant from Deutsche Telekom to create a program in 1994 called TerraVision, which was essentially a prototype of Google Earth. When TerraVision was unveiled at tech conferences, the program became a worldwide sensation for its artistic merits (it ingeniously used a globe as a controller), as well as how it shattered existing technological boundaries.

Once news of TerraVision spread, ART+COM co-founders Carsten Schlüter and Juri Müller traveled to Silicon Valley, where they met Brian Anderson, a charismatic tech executive whose company made the hardware that ART+COM used to build TerraVision. Müller is swept up by Anderson’s magnetism (they go to Burning Man together, of course) and the naïve young coder reveals the secrets of his algorithm. From there, Anderson takes the idea to Google and promises to bring ART+COM along for the ride. Then the story turns into an all-too-familiar tale of a tech giant bringing its own version of the startup’s project to market. 

The experience was debilitating to both ART+COM, as well as the friendship of its founders, who went years without speaking to each other before reuniting in 2014 to file a patent lawsuit against Google with a potential payout of $700 million. The show then shifts into legal procedural territory, with Google’s sinister legal team definitely violating the company’s old “Don’t be evil” motto.

A presentation of TerraVision at a tech conference in "The Billion Dollar Code."

A presentation of TerraVision at a tech conference in “The Billion Dollar Code.”

Courtesy of Netflix

Although based on real events, “The Billion Dollar Code” takes a few creative liberties. The showrunners worked closely with the actual ART+COM team, as well as building the courtroom scenes off real records, but in reality, there were four founders of TerraVision. Additionally, the nefarious American tech vulture appears to be a composite based on former Google executives Michael T. Jones and Brian McClendon. 

As one might expect in any underdog story, you’re meant to root for the little guys. Müller and Schlüter are a classic combo of charismatic founder and shy whiz kid, out to change the world for the better. Their chemistry (and later animosity) brings the characters to life, with a foresight about the evolution of the internet that seems downright prescient. Like so many tech founders, they started with utopian intentions for their software, then realized its commercial potential, only to be left empty-handed.

ART+COM's legal team in "The Billion Dollar Code."

ART+COM’s legal team in “The Billion Dollar Code.”

Courtesy of Netflix

If you couldn’t already tell, it’s clear from the start that the showrunners are on their side. Viewers’ sympathy for the pair only increases given Google’s sneaky tactics, which the show purports to be common industry practice at the time. Allegedly, ART+COM was asked to name the price its algorithm was worth. Once that figure was officially documented, it put a cap on how much the startup could earn from a patent infringement lawsuit. Given the costs of such a lawsuit — which the show estimates to be $10 million — that limit to the financial return made it unviable for a lawyer to even take the case.

Leonard Schleicher and Marius Ahrendt in "The Billion Dollar Code."

Leonard Schleicher and Marius Ahrendt in “The Billion Dollar Code.”

Courtesy of Netflix

As heavily as the showrunners work to tip the scales in ART+COM’s favor, the David and Goliath saga plays out just as one might expect: The scrappy German startup fails in its legal battle. Its founders receive neither financial reward nor the recognition they craved, and even their legal team appears crushed on a moral level by the triumph of “Don’t be evil” over good (perhaps the only unrealistic part of the whole show). But as much as this is a cautionary tale about the reach of Big Tech’s tendrils, the viewer is rooting for the rekindling of Müller and Schlüter’s friendship just as much as a guilty verdict. While a $700 million payout sure would have be nice, “The Billion Dollar Code” shows that the story of ART+COM was really more about the friends they made along the way. 

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