Startup Smartcar accuses bigger rival Otonomo of stealing intellectual property

Connected car startup Smartcar tells Digital Trends a much larger competitor named Otonomo is illegally cloning its intellectual property — and the company published a series of screenshots on its official blog to back up its assertion.

There is no connection between Smartcar and the Daimler-owned automaker that has made pocket-sized, Smart-branded city cars since 1998. Instead, Smartcar makes tools developers use to create apps that put people on wheels. Software engineers use its API to build car-sharing apps, for example. It’s this API that Smartcar claims Otonomo shamelessly copied word for word, and posted on its website for the world to see.

“We didn’t just find a few vague similarities to Smartcar’s documentation. Otonomo’s docs are a systematically written rip-off of ours — from the overall structure, right down to code samples, and even typos,” the company explained in a blog post. It provided several screenshots taken on April 16, 2019, to support its accusations.

It’s not unheard of for lines of code that perform essentially the same function to look similar, and even for some basic lines of code to be identical. But the fact that Smartcar’s typos show up in Otonomo’s documents is suspicious: It sounds like 7th grade-level cheating. Smartcar’s API is available online, so anyone can download it, explore it, and copy it.

The stand-off could morph into the tech equivalent of the battle between David and Goliath. Valued at approximately $370 million, Israel’s Otonomo has received $55 million in funding from a series of big-name investors like Aptiv/Delphi, Dell, Hearst, and SK Telecom. It employs about 100 people, according to its LinkedIn page. California’s Smartcar, on the other hand, is a much more compact operation with 20 employees. It’s backed by $12 million in funding received from smaller companies.

Smartcar told Digital Trends via email that it sent Otonomo a cease-and-desist order in a bid to claim back its intellectual property. The company hasn’t announced what’s next; it could stop there, or it could take the case to court. Digital Trends reached out to Otonomo for its side of the story, but the company didn’t reply. CMO Lisa Joy did provided a statement to TechCrunch defending itself, however.

“Otonomo prides itself on providing a completely unique offering backed by our own intellectual property and patents. We take Smartcar’s questions seriously and are conducting an investigation, but we remain confident that our rigorous standards of integrity remain uncompromised. If our investigation reveals any issues, we will immediately take the necessary steps to address them.”

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