July 26, 2007

Is Mark Zuckerberg Really Your Friend

by PG

I hadn't planned to write about the Facebook-ConnectU, partly because I'm embarrassed to be on Facebook, but after seeing a visit from IP Address 204.15.23.# (Thefacebook.com) of Palo Alto, CA, I figured that they're looking for publicity, so here goes:

According to the Associated Press, ConnectU's founders are charging in a federal lawsuit that Facebook's founder stole their ideas while they were students at Harvard. They say Mark Zuckerberg agreed to finish computer code for their site, but repeatedly stalled and eventually created Facebook using their ideas. A hearing on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit was scheduled for today in U.S. District Court in Boston.

In November 2003, the three asked Zuckerberg to complete software and database work on the site. They repeatedly asked him to finish before they graduated in June 2004, and Zuckerberg assured them he was working hard to complete it, the lawsuit says.
"Such statements were false and Zuckerberg never intended to provide the code and instead intended to breach his promise ... and intended to steal the idea for the Harvard Connection website, and in fact he did so," the suit alleges.
Zuckerberg launched Thefacebook.com in February 2004. ConnectU started its Web site in May of that year. By beating ConnectU to the market, Facebook gained a huge advantage, the lawsuit claims.
In court documents, Zuckerberg's attorneys say ConnectU has no evidence of any contracts with Zuckerberg or that what it shared with him were trade secrets.
That the attorneys were quite so specific -- mentioning contracts and trade secrets, rather than flatly denying that Zuckerberg had any knowledge or involvement of the Harvard Connection project -- makes me think that the allegations must have some basis in fact. Even if there was a lack of consideration to create a contract (maybe the Harvard Connection kids just asked him to do it as a favor), there might be some public backlash against a site that was created on a stolen information, even if it was not contractually protected as a trade secret. Surely one of the ConnectU founders -- or better yet for veritas, Harvard's IT -- can produce an e-mail that would show Zuckerberg had been asked to work on the site. At least in the court of public opinion, Zuckerberg then would have to show that he had had a similar idea, independently, before he started working on ConnectU or its predecessor.

July 26, 2007 01:33 AM | TrackBack

Ah, Facebook. Destroyer of days. I actually wondered what I'd do with my facebook account in my future professoriate days. It would be kind of weird to have it up. But it's been the only way I've been able to stay in touch with my many far-flung friends.

The point is, the more old codgers like yourself that use it, the less self-conscious I'll be. So stop being embarrassed already!

Posted by: David Schraub at July 29, 2007 01:55 AM

I would think that any Harvard Tech students would be bright enough to know that any R&D in the development of their site would had to have included an non disclosure policy or some type of pending copyright privacy contract when asking Mr.Zuckerberg to work on their project. They did not do their due-diligence when it came to patents and copyright laws and now receive an F. I hope they will learn a valuable lesson and take this with them when they get the next great idea instead of trying to back track in court with a case of should of, could of, would of. As for Mr.Zuckerberg he saw opportunity and value in his development of what is now Facebook and ran with it. The history of the American dream is full of visionaries running with ideas that have huge potential. Howard Hughes father bought a drill bit from an inventor for next to nothing and financed the Hughes empire for two generations as Hughes Oil Tool Company. This diamond bit helped made Howard a billionaire. It looks to me like the Harvard guys could not compete on their project and that Mr.Zuckerberg was smart enough to realize that he was being undervalued and took it upon himself to do his own thing with his ability to complete such a project. I look forward to many other great accomplishments from people like Mr.Zuckerberg.

Posted by: Peter Leuchter PM at August 8, 2007 06:18 PM

Mr. Leuchter,

I don't know when you took copyright law, but since the U.S. signed the Berne Convention in 1989, copyrights for creative works are automatically in force upon fixing the work in some way (writing code on a computer certainly constitutes "fixing" it). Upon such fixing, the work's author is entitled to all copyrights in the work, and to any derivative works unless and until the author explicitly disclaims them. Even without having registered the copyright before Zuckerberg's infringement, the plaintiffs still can pursue actual damages and lost profits, just not statutory damages and attorney's fees.

As for condoning idea theft (assuming that's actually what occurred here), I disagree that such behavior is conducive to increasing the number of "great accomplishments." The whole reason to have copyright, trademark and patent law is to protect people's investments in their work and encourage them to be open about it so that others can cooperatively improve it (contrast with trade secrets, such as the recipe for Coca Cola). If the Harvard students should have been terrified of revealing their ideas to a fellow student for fear that he would steal them, that doesn't strike me as a healthy mindset that will lead to better products and services. Again, assuming the plaintiffs' allegations are true, if Zuckerberg conceived of improvements upon their original idea, he should have said, "Hey, I'm not really interested in working on another person's project, but I have a lot of ideas on how to improve this. Make me an equal partner and I'll keep helping you." If they genuinely were unable to complete the project, the plaintiffs probably would have jumped at this offer.

Posted by: PG at August 10, 2007 03:44 PM
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