Facebook has been on a roll, but it looks like the social networking site has hit a bump in the road. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will appear in court today in Boston to face copyright infringement allegations in a lawsuit filed by the three founders of ConnectU, who claim that Zuckerberg stole the idea for the social-networking site.
Originally filed in 2004, the complaint was dismissed due to a technicality, but was refiled earlier this year in March at the U.S. District Court in Boston.
The founders say they began developing a networking site for Harvard University in late 2002. A then-sophomore Zuckerberg was recruited to work on some back-end coding for the site in late 2003. The suit alleges that Zuckerberg intentionally stalled his work on ConnectU for more than 2 months so that he could lift the idea and give Facebook an earlier release in February 2004, versus ConnectU’s launch in May 2004. ConnectU is claiming that this gave Facebook a “crucial competitive advantage.” (Consider this: Facebook today has about 31 million users while ConnectU languishes behind with only 70,000 users, according Courier Mail.)
Brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narenda, the founders of ConnectU and former Harvard classmates of Zuckerberg’s, are pushing for the shutdown of Facebook, as well as all profits and control to be handed to them.
It’s not all just hot air either — ConnectU’s founders have said they have a record of 52 e-mail exchanges and three meetings between their team and Zuckerberg where they discussed the details of the social networking site. Zuckerberg, however, maintains his innocence, according to the Daily Tech:
Zuckerberg says that he voluntarily agreed to contribute six hours of coding for the ConnectU site, but denies that he had knowledge of it being a social networking system. Instead, he claims that he believed it to be a personal site to connect students, alumni and employers.
“I’ve never really understood their product, but it was not a social networking site,” Zuckerberg said in a previous Stanford Daily story.
It should come as no surprise that this lawsuit reared its head again, considering there’s a lot more at stake now than three years ago. Facebook famously turned down Yahoo’s $1 billion buy-out offer last year, and experts are saying that it could worth at least double that these days. And according to the Wall Street Journal, the social networking giant is expected to earn $30 million this year on revenue of $150 million from advertising, says Portfolio.com.
Still, it does beg the question of whether or not there really is any weight to the suit — after all, can you copyright social networking? Deep Jive Interests probes the subject a bit further:
Granted, I have non-existent legal knowledge, but doesn’t something have to merit some kind of minimum standard of originality to ensure copyright? While these standards may be actually low, to think that some flavour of social networking constitutes “original” is actually a little absurd.
I think the outcome of this lawsuit is interesting, if for no other reason than that it might establish precedent for future lawsuits against established social networks — and who knows who will pop out of the woodwork, claiming that they had the first “social networking site for business contacts” (linkedin.com), “social networking for high school students” (myspace.com), or even a “social networking site for families” (geni.com)?
Let’s hope it doesn’t get that over the top.