Microsoft to Google: Stop Poaching

Not so fast, Google.

That was essentially Microsoft’s response in a lawsuit filed against its Internet search rival over Google’s hiring of Microsoft executive Kai-Fu Lee.

On Tuesday, Google announced it had hired Kai-Fu Lee as vice president of engineering and president of Google China. Lee was tapped to head up a new R&D facility.

“Under the leadership of Dr. Lee, with his proven track record of innovation and his passion for technology and research, the Google China R&D center will enable us to develop more innovative products and technologies for millions of users in China and around the world, said Alan Eustace, Google’s vice president of engineering, in a statement on the appointment.

Google spokesman David Krane said the R&D center, due to open this quarter, still did not have a site. One of Lee’s first tasks will be to find a location for the center.

He certainly has the experience. Lee joined Google from Microsoft , where he founded Microsoft Research China. Lee was one of the main architects of Microsoft’s business strategies in China, the complaint said. He was most recently corporate vice president of the natural interactive services division, where he oversaw speech, natural language interfaces, advanced search and help, and authoring and learning technologies. According to Microsoft’s complaint, Lee led the development of MSN’s new search technology.

MSN used to use Google’s search on its site. In November 2004, its own search technology went live. Microsoft and Google also compete with free desktop search tools for consumers.

Microsoft rushed to drop paper on Google and Lee, suing for breach of Microsoft’s employee confidentiality and non-compete agreement.

“We are asking the Court to require Dr. Lee and Google to honor the confidentiality and non-competition agreements he signed when he began working for Microsoft,” a Microsoft statement read.

Evidently, Lee had planned the move for some time. He first talked to Google in mid-April, according to Microsoft’s complaint, then went on sabbatical in June. On July 5, he told his boss, Eric Rudder, that he wasn’t coming back.

According to Microsoft, Lee’s contract included an agreement not to compete with Microsoft for a year after he left. Specifically, the agreement said, “I will not (a) accept employment or engage in activities competitive with product, services or projects (including actual or demonstrably anticipated research or development) on which I worked or about which I learned confidential or proprietary information or trade secrets ”

“Creating intellectual property is the essence of what we do at Microsoft, and we have a responsibility to our employees and our shareholders to protect our intellectual property,” Microsoft’s statement continued. “As a senior executive, Dr. Lee has direct knowledge of Microsoft’s trade secrets concerning search technologies and China business strategies. He has accepted a position focused on the same set of technologies and strategies for a direct competitor in egregious violation of his explicit contractual obligations.”

Google’s own statement read, “”We have reviewed Microsoft’s claims and they are completely without merit. Google is focused on building the best place in the world for great innovators to work. We’re thrilled to have Dr. Lee on board at Google. We will defend vigorously against these meritless claims and will fully support Dr. Lee.”

The well-traveled Lee was previously a vice president and general manager at Silicon Graphics responsible for Internet and multimedia software, an Apple vice president for interactive media, and an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

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