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'The Billion Dollar Code': The battle over Google Earth

Silke Wünsch
October 7, 2021

Netflix's new miniseries fictionalizes the story of two Berlin internet pioneers who attempt to prove that Google stole their idea, worth billions.

Film still from 'The Billion Dollar Code': a bunch of people wearing suits standing around a globe.
'The Billion Dollar Code' is also a journey back to the beginnings of the internet Image: Netflix

Two guys in Berlin in the early 1990s: One of them is an art student with big ideas, the other a computer nerd.

After meeting in 1993 in a techno club, they developed together the idea of creating a kind of global work of art that would allow people to travel to any point in the world, simply by zooming into a location with a click of the mouse.

They quickly realized that computers in the early 1990s weren't performant enough for their project.

But that could change, especially with the help of a telecommunications giant and experienced hackers on board: They were sponsored by Deutsche Telekom, and developers were members of the Chaos Computer Club.

Film still from 'The Billion Dollar Code': two people in a dark room staring at a computer from the 1990s, one is sitting and the other one stands behind him.
Juri Müller (Marius Ahrendt) and Carsten Schlüter (Leonard Schleicher) develop their idea Image: Netflix

Despite a chaotic process, the two partners managed to have their "Terra Vision" project ready for a presentation at an international communications fair in Kyoto, Japan, in 1994. It was a resounding success.

But during a trip to Silicon Valley, the source code for "Terra Vision" fell into the wrong hands — and in 2005 Google, by then a tech giant, suddenly released Google Earth.

The two developers from Germany felt that Google had stolen their idea — leading to a David vs. Goliath court case.

Overtaken by a tech giant

The Netflix miniseries tells in two timelines and four parts how two computer freaks developed their idea, convinced a large corporation and finally the whole world of its interest — only to be robbed of their fame and fortune by a tech giant's legal ruse.

With this German production, Netflix demonstrates once again that the setting of a story is not what matters most, but rather what it is about. The two developers could just as well have been from Japan or South Africa instead of Germany; the core of their tale is universal.

The Netflix production's look, story, editing, script and soundtrack is on par with similar international productions, and, adding an authentic feel, the German actors in The Billion Dollar Code have synchronized their own voices in the English version.

Time travel to the 1990s

Details of the 1990s are meticulously reproduced. Through the story of Juri Müller and Carsten Schlüter, the miniseries dives into the atmosphere of Berlin's post-reunification era, with its techno clubs, its wildly experimental art scene and its hackers, who weren't really taken seriously at that point. It was a time when having an actual bank account felt like being part of the establishment, and young people had found their own way of being cool.

The internet embodied dreams of revolution and freedom without borders. The idea that all knowledge could be available to everyone was incredibly new and exciting at the time.

Film still from 'The Billion Dollar Code': two young men smile in a sunny urban setting, palm trees in the background.
Arriving in paradise: Carsten (Leonard Schleicher) and Juri (Marius Ahrendt) in Silicon Valley Image: Netflix

Funders were investing insane sums to help build this new world. Silicon Valley was the El Dorado of the new computer age, with digital prospectors gathering in the gigantic tech park under palm trees, with basketball courts and espresso machines.

Twenty-five years later, the Berlin programming pioneers set off for a lawsuit against internet giant Google. They want to prove that they were the ones who, with "Terra Vision," laid the foundations for Google Earth, Google Maps and all the navigation systems in use today.

Film still from 'The Billion Dollar Code' a group of people in suits in a US court
25 years later: Carsten (Mark Waschke) and Juri (Misel Maticevic) meet Google's lawyersImage: Netflix

A fiction, based on real events

A rollercoaster ride, fast-paced and emotional, which ends in an exciting court drama — with a cast of consistently outstanding actors.

With The Billion Dollar Code, director Robert Thalheim and screenwriter Oliver Ziegenbalg have created a journey through time in a fiction based on real events.

The idea for the story arose while having a barbecue with a neighbor, who turned out to be Joachim Sauter, a media artist who helped develop "Terra Vision" in the early 1990s and who actually went to court against Google.

Of course, the miniseries' creators dramatized interpretation of the story does not represent all the facts behind the development of the program and the ongoing court case.

The filmmakers didn't hope to re-establish justice. They simply wanted to portray the ideals that initially drove the tech generation and what it ultimately turned into, says Robert Thalheim.

Joachim Sauter
One of the men behind the actual events: Joachim SauterImage: Joi/Wikipedia CC

The director explained that he wanted to show "how the balance of power has shifted and the internet pioneers themselves are overwhelmed by this development," said Thalheim. "Today, everyone only talks about the multimillionaires who have become extremely rich with the internet and are now flying to the moon. But we wanted to show how it all began, and tell the story of those who were never in the limelight. "

Interviews with the people involved in the events as well as the court files contributed to the authenticity of the series. The script reproduces the actual court statements to avoid coming into conflict with Google.

Joachim Sauter also collaborated with the filmmaker. But the art professor did not get to see the series as a completed work — he died in July 2021. The Billion Dollar Code, released on October 7 on Netflix, is dedicated to him.


Update: This article was updated shortly after its publication to better reflect that it is solely about the fictional miniseries, and not about the actual court case.
The text was translated from German.