Saturday, September 1, 2007

Facebook Faceoff

The dispute over who owns the Facebook IP turns out to be a three-way affair, perhaps like some of the hook-ups on the site itself.

In 2004, the founders of of a site called ConnectU sued Facebook, alleging copyright infringement and theft of trade secrets. The ConnectU founders - Harvard students at the time - claim that they conceived the idea of a collegiate social networking site, and asked another student, Mark Zuckerberg, to write the source code.

Zuckerberg, the suit alleges, began to write code, but then jumped ship and used the code - and the idea - to start what is now Facebook. ConnectU foundered, while Facebook prospered.

Today, the NY Times reports, another Harvard student - Aaron Greenberg - has appeared, with emails between himself and Zuckerberg that allegedly prove he created an on-line facebook before Zuckerberg/Facebook or ConnectU. Greenberg says Zuckerberg lifted his ideas. He's bitter, but he's not suing. (At least, not yet.)

Who's on top in this three-way tussle? Allegedly, there was no contract between ConnectU and Zuckerberg, and Zuckerberg was not a formal employee of ConnectU. If true, ConnectU may find its suit disconnected, because without a contract or an employment relationship, trade secrets are generally not protectible and the programmer owns the copyright.

Likewise, Greenberg apparently has no legal claim, because his ideas weren't secret - his system was public - and because he doesn't claim anyone stole his code.

The lesson for ConnectU: get it in writing. Without a Non-Disclosure and Invention Assignment Agreement, the other guy gets the girl (or guy) while you stay home alone playing video games. The lesson for Greenberg: first doesn't always win. And the lesson for the rest of us? See a lawyer before you start bringing in partners and collaborators. Class dismissed.

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