Smartcar accuses $50M-funded rival Otonomo of API plagiarism

Ruthless copying is common in tech. Just ask Snapchat. However, it’s typically more conceptual than literal. But car API startup Smartcar claims that its competitor Otonomo copy-and-pasted Smartcar’s API documentation, allegedly plagiarizing it extensively to the point of including the original’s typos and randomly generated strings of code. It’s published a series of side-by-side screenshots detailing the supposed theft of its intellectual property.

Smartcar CEO Sahas Katta says “We do have evidence of several of their employees systemically using our product with behavior indicating they wanted to copy our product in both form and function.” Now a spokesperson for the startup tells me “We’ve filed a cease-and-desist letter, delivered to Otonomo this morning, that contains documented aspects of different breaches and violations.”

The accusations are troubling given Otonomo is not some inconsequential upstart. The Israel-based company has raised over $50 million since its founding in 2015, and its investors include auto parts giant Aptiv (formerly Delphi) and prestigious VC firm Bessemer Ventures Partners. Otonomo CMO Lisa Joy provided this statement in response to the allegations, noting it will investigate but is confident it acted with integrity:

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.

Both startups are trying to build an API layer that connects data from cars with app developers so they can build products that can locate, unlock, or harness data from vehicles. The 20-person Mountain View-based Smartcar has raised $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz and NEA. A major deciding factor in who’ll win this market is which platform offers the best documentation that makes it easiest for developers to integrate the APIs. 

“A few days ago, we came across Otonomo’s publicly available API documentation. As we read through it, we quickly realized that something was off. It looked familiar. Oddly familiar. That’s because we wrote it” Smartcar explains in its blog post. “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 screenshot above comparing API documentation from Smartcar on the left and Otonomo on the right appears to show Otonomo used nearly identical formatting and the exact same randomly generated sample identifier (highlighted) as Smartcar. Further examples flag seemingly identical code strings and snippets.

Smartcar founder and CEO Sahas Katta

Otonomo has pulled down their docs.otonomo.io documentation website, but TechCrunch has reviewed an Archive.org Wayback Machine showing this Otonomo site as of April 5, 2019 featured sections that are identical to the documentation Smartcar published in August 2018. That includes Smartcar’s typo “it will returned here”, and its randomly generated sample code placeholder “”4a1b01e5-0497-417c-a30e-6df6ba33ba46” which both appear in the Wayback Machine copy of Otonomo’s docs. The typo was fixed in this version of Otonomo’s docs that’s still publicly available, but that code string remains.

“It would be a one in a quintillion chance of them happening to land on the same randomly generated string” Smartcar’s Katta tells TechCrunch.

Yet curiously, Otonomo’s CMO told TechCrunch that “The materials that [Smartcar] put on their post are all publicly accessible documentation, It’s all public domain content.” But that’s not true, Katta argues, given the definition of ‘public domain’ is content belonging to the public that’s uncopyrightable. “I would sure hope not, considering . . . we have proper copyright notices at the bottom. Our product is our intellectual property. Just like Twilio’s API documentation or Stripe’s, it is published and publicly available — and it is proprietary.”

Otonomo’s Lisa Joy noted that her startup is currently fundraising for its Series C, which reportedly already includes $10 million from South Korean energy and telecom holdings giant SK. “We’re in the middle of raising a round right now. That round is not done” she told me. But if Otonomo gets a reputation for allegedly copying its API docs, that could hurt its standing with developers and potentially endanger that funding round.

Vine reboot Byte begins beta testing

Twitter shut down Dom Hoffman’s app Vine, giving away the short-form video goldmine to China’s TikTok. Now a year and half since Hoffman announced he’d reimagine the app as V2 then scrapped that name, his follow-up to Vine called Byte has finally sent out the first 100 invites to its closed beta. Byte will let users record or upload short, looped vertical videos to what’s currently a reverse-chronological feed.

It will be a long uphill climb for Byte given TikTok’s massive popularity. But if it differentiates by focusing less on lip syncing and teen non-sense so it’s less alienating to an older audience, there might be room for a homegrown competitor in short-form video entertainment.

Hoffman tells TechCrunch that he’s emboldened by the off-the-cuff nature of the beta community, which he believes proves the app is compelling even before lots of creative and funny video makers join. He says his top priority is doing right by creators so they’ll be lined up to give Byte a shot when it officially launches even if they could get more views elsewhere.

For now, Hoffman plans to keep running beta tests, adding and subtracting features for a trial by fire to see what works and what’s unnecessary. The current version is just camera recordings with no uploads, and just a feed with Likes and comments but no account following. Upcoming iterations from his seven-person team will test video uploads and profiles.

One reassuring point is that Hoffman is well aware that TikTok’s epic rise has changed the landscape. He admits that Byte can’t win with the exact same playbook Vine did when it faced an open field, and it must bring something unique. Hoffman tells me he’s a big fan of TikTok, and sees it as one evolutionary step past Vine, but not in the same direction as his new app

Does the world need Vine back if TikTok already has over 500 million active users? We’ll soon find out of Hoffman can take a Byte of that market.

The new new web

Over the last five years, almost everything about web development has changed. Oh, the old tech still works, your WordPress and Ruby On Rails sites still function just fine — but they’re increasingly being supplanted by radical new approaches. The contents of your browser are being sliced, diced, rendered, and processed in wholly new ways nowadays, and the state of art is currently in serious flux. What follows is a brief tour of what I like to call the New New Web:

Table of Contents

  1. Single-Page Apps
  2. Headless CMSes
  3. Static Site Generators
  4. The JAMStack
  5. Hosting and Serverlessness
  6. Summary

1. Single-Page Apps

These have become so much the norm — our web projects at HappyFunCorp are almost always single-page apps nowadays — that it’s easy to forget how new and radical they were when they first emerged, in the days of jQuery running in pages dynamically built from templates on the server.

Talk media and TED2019 key takeaways with TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha

Anthony just returned from Vancouver, where he was covering the TED2019 conference — a much-parodied gathering where VCs, executives and other bigwigs gather to exchange ideas.

This year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey got the biggest headlines, but the questions raised in his onstage interview kept popping up throughout the week: How has social media warped our democracy? How can the big online platforms fight back against abuse and misinformation? And what is the Internet good for, anyway? Wednesday at 11:00 am PT, Anthony will recap the five-day event’s most interesting talks and provocative ideas with Extra Crunch members on a conference call.

Tune in to dig into what happened onstage and off and ask Anthony any and all things media.

To listen to this and all future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free.