Microsoft wins first round of Google employee lawsuit

Microsoft has won the first round in its legal action against Google, with a restraining order that prevents a former Microsoft employee from engaging in competing work at the search company.

The ruling came from King County Superior Court in Seattle on Thursday and represents an initial, if small, win for Microsoft. The software company is suing to prevent Dr Kai-Fu Lee from taking work with Google that would compete with Microsoft’s search engine strategy in China.

Lee was formerly a vice president in charge of Microsoft’s Beijing research and development center, and Microsoft claimed in a lawsuit last week that Lee’s work with Google would directly compete with his Microsoft role.

Microsoft argues such work for a competitor is prohibited by the terms of Lee’s contract. Microsoft also says Lee could divulge trade secrets to Google.

Lee’s work with Microsoft included search, speech recognition and other interactive technologies, and he was also privy to Microsoft’s China strategy at a high level, according to the company. Google hired Lee to be the president of its China operations. The search company is planning to open a Chinese research and development center later this year.

The restraining order granted that Microsoft had “established a clear legal or equitable right” and “a well-grounded fear of immediate invasion of that right”. Microsoft had also shown the acts complained of “will result in actual and substantial injury”.

The restraining order prohibits Lee from accepting employment from Google in specific areas, and prohibits Google from employing Lee in those areas. The prohibited work includes any activities “competitive with any product, service or project… on which he worked while employed at Microsoft”, including “computer search technologies… natural language processing or speech technologies”, the court order said.

Lee is also enjoined from work involving “business strategies, planning or development with respect to the Chinese market for computer search technologies”.

Google and Lee are enjoined from disclosing or using Microsoft trade secrets or other confidential or proprietary information obtained in connection with Lee’s employment at Microsoft. Lee is specifically not allowed to solicit, encourage, or attempt to induce Microsoft employees to leave the company and work for any competitor, including Google.

Finally, Lee and Google are required to return to Microsoft any documents they may have in connection with Lee’s work for Microsoft, and can’t destroy any documents related to Lee’s work for Microsoft or Google.

Google downplayed the result, noting that it never intended to employ Lee for work in direct competition with Microsoft. “We’re gratified that the judge recognized that all Google and Dr Lee have to do is avoid having Dr Lee do anything competitive with what he did at Microsoft,” said Nicole Wong, Google’s lawyer, in a statement. “As we have said all along, we have no intention of having him do that.”

Google called the ruling a “temporary measure to maintain the status quo”. Google has countersued Microsoft in California, arguing that Microsoft’s action is a scare tactic to prevent its employees from defecting to Google.

The trial is scheduled for January of next year, but the parties will meet on Sept. 6 and Google may contest the ruling at that time.

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