Based on a true story, The Billion Dollar Code is a fictional German limited series created by Robert Thalheim and Oliver Ziegenbalg. The thriller series follows a court trial for patent infringement. A small company with a patent for an innovative idea sues a large corporation for infringing the patent and making millions out of it.
At the center of the narrative are two German inventors who invented Terravision, an innovative virtual representation of Earth. However, a large corporate giant steals their algorithm, giving them neither credit nor money for their invention. Though skeptical of the outcome, the two artists try to fight the Goliath. The Netflix series, The Billion Dollar Code, follows their inspiring journey.
‘The Billion Dollar Code’ Plot Summary
The English language term “visionary programmer” is made up of two words. In the digital era, there are many famous collaborators where one is visionary, and the other is a programmer. That’s how “Apple” came to life. This story also has a duo, Carsten Schlüter, and Juri Müller, whose invention changed the way we look at the world.
The Billion Dollar Code begins six weeks before an upcoming trial. An American lawyer, Lea Hausiwth, prepares plaintiffs Carsten and Juri for a patent infringement case. Carsten and Juri begin their story of how their dream project ‘Terravision’ was created.
The narrative captures the events of the early 90s. Carsten Schlüter is an art student at Berlin University and holds a passionate interest in visual art. Through his art, he attempts to view the planet Earth in an alternate and artificial reality. Though Carsten is a visionary, he lacks programming skills. Due to that, his virtual program constantly freezes and crashes. Fortunately, Carsten meets a computer nerd, Juri Müller, in a nightclub. Juri rewrites the algorithm for Carsten’s program to improve its real-time performance.
Carsten’s virtual reality Earth View program captivates Müller’s interest, and together the two innovators decide to create a full-fledged mapping software. A Deutsche Telecom company invests in their start-up. The company provides them with funds to develop and present the software at an upcoming ITU conference in Kyoto. With a deadline over their head, Juri and Carsten create a salient team to finish a bug-free program. They unveil their magnum opus in Kyoto and enchant each and every person present at the event. However, their God Machine is soon stolen from them, and they can’t do anything to tell the world that they are its inventors.
Major Spoilers Ahead
How did Terravision’s algorithm get stolen?
After their massive success and media attention, Carsten Schlüter and Juri Müller were reached out to by one of the chiefs at Silicon Graphics, Brian Anderson. To develop Terravision, the German innovators used an Onyx workstation designed by Silicon Graphics. Brian adored Terravision and thus invited Carsten and Juri to display it at the company’s showroom in California, 1995.
Juri worshipped computer god Brian and thus, on his short three-day trip, discussed Terravision’s algorithm with him. Juri wanted to make his invention available to the general public on the internet, and Brian understood his ambitions. However, at the time, the internet was not yet famous, and not many people owned a PC. Hence, Juri decided to stay back in Silicon Valley and give wings to his desire to develop Terravision further. But Carsten aspired to create his own company and their own Silicon Valley in Berlin. He insisted Juri return to Berlin with him and Juri agreed.
After returning from America, Carsten established his own company, Art+Com. A symbolization that explains Carsten’s vision of uniting art and technology. However, after an extensive hustle, Carsten and Juri failed to convince their country’s investors to understand their vision of an upcoming digital age. As a result, Terravision was never released or re-programmed for the general public.
In 2005, Brian developed a demo program that looked precisely like Terravision. He collaborated with another tech company to develop a PC program for the general audience, something Juri always wanted to do. After the big revelations, Juri couldn’t believe that his God could steal his life’s work. He was in denial and refused to believe that Brian used Terravision’s algorithm. Yet, Juri knew that it was only Brian with whom he discussed the intricate details of the software on his short trip to Silicon Valley. Carsten believed it wasn’t an error but a human mistake that couldn’t be proved. But Brian’s reaction and enthusiasm had a completely different story to tell.
Did Brian Anderson steal Terravision Algorithm?
As soon as Juri contacted Brian and congratulated him for his new program, Brian came to Berlin to cover up. Brian told German innovators that he left Silicon Graphics and started developing things for the video game industry. He developed a flying-to-Earth demo that caught the attention of the Corporate Giant. Later, Brian collaborated with them to develop the program.
Brian knew that his flying-to-Earth was a straightaway rip-off of Terravision. In his own words, he said, “If I hadn’t seen Terravision back then [in 1995], I could never have created something like that.” Suggestively, Brian hinted to Juri that he used his algorithm for the program. And to stop the innovators from filing a case, Brian lured them with a lucrative collaboration that would have made them 5 million dollars.
Juri sent their patent documents to the tech company. But in the end, the company refused to buy or license Terravision. They built their own software without paying the original developers. Brian Anderson stole the algorithms and the credits, and Terravision didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The outcome flamed disputes between long-time buddies Juri and Carsten. Art+Com financially struggled to stay afloat, and thus Carsten left the company, and Juri moved back to Budapest. All their dreams were crushed into ruins until Lea Hausiwth showed up with a silver lining.
How did Lea build the case?
Lea Hausiwth was a lawyer who worked for a law firm in Houston, Windmill and Keen. Carsten searched the top ten law firms in America and, through the search results, got in touch with Lea’s firm.
After Juri and Carsten were convinced that a corporate giant stole their algorithm, they tried to sue them. But it was hopeless. According to the email shared between two parties, the tech giant proposed to buy Juri’s code for 5 million dollars. However, a lawyer in Berlin told them that a patent lawsuit in America costs around 10 million dollars. Even if they win the case, they would still lose 5 million. Thus, Juri and Carsten were never able to find any firm that would represent them.
In their case, Lea saw a pattern. According to a story she heard, after the internet revolution, the big internet companies started writing to small companies worldwide. These start-ups held patents to products that tech companies might infringe on. Thus, to avoid costly patent disputes, they offered the small companies a small amount of money and mentioned it in the mails. In Art+Com’s case, it was 5 million, as suggested by Brian. However, they never bought these patents in the end, and the small companies failed to file a case because the amount promised was always less than the actual cost of the case itself.
Lea studied hundreds of cases that followed a similar pattern but couldn’t help them because there was no hope of winning them. But in Juri and Carsten’s, she found a clause that stated, “If we enter into a collaboration.” Juri and Carsten never collaborated with the tech giant. Thus, it nullified the 5 million offer, and it was their ray of hope to find justice for themselves.
700 Million Dollar Case
The German innovators reached Delaware, America, to seek justice. At the trial, Warren Stewart representing the corporate company stated that his client doesn’t make any money with the virtual Earth View program directly.
However, Lea’s tech expert, Ms. Martinez, argued that while the company doesn’t serve ads on its software, it does collect “user data.” They have user information that they use for advertising. Hence, spending more time on the software provides them more information about the user that helps increase ad targeting and relevance. It is called the Network Effect. Therefore, the compensatory damage for the case was calculated on the number of users using the software per year. At a rate of 10 cents per user, the damage cost around 700 million dollars.
‘The Billion Dollar Code’ Ending Explained
Lea hired a tech expert, Dr. Callaghan, to study the algorithms used in both software. According to his study, the source codes of both the programs shared similarities, and thus there was a direct case of patent infringement. However, the non-technical jury failed to understand a word Callaghan uttered, and therefore his analysis didn’t amount to anything substantial.
The verdict of the case relied on Brian Anderson’s testimony. At first, Brian denied remembering Juri and Carsten and their meetings in Silicon Valley and Berlin. He even refused to accept that he had ever told Juri that Terravision inspired his software. As Brian turned down the truth, the jury went with the flow and decided against Juri and Carsten. The judge announced the verdict, in which the jury rejected all the acquisitions and claims made by Ant+Com. The tech giant was discharged from the charges, and Juri and Carsten returned to Berlin with nothing.
In the end of The Billion Dollar Code, Juri and Carsten didn’t get the fame and money for their invention that they deserved. But they did get one thing: Each Other. The Terravision lawsuit brought the friends back together. Juri decided to move to Berlin and work with Carsten again. He already had an idea for a secure messaging service with encrypted HTTPS access (Signal) and would probably work on that.
The inventors will begin again, again from scratch, to revolutionize the world. They may not have become rich or famous or turned into world leaders. But they changed the way we see the world. And that’s their story, that no one can ever steal from them. One can steal an artist’s artwork, but he or she cannot steal the artistry.
The Billion Dollar Code is a 2021 German Limited Series created by Oliver Ziegenbalg and Robert Thalheim. It is a fictional series based on a true story. All four episodes are streaming on Netflix.