/ 25 July 2007

Facebook fights fraud lawsuit from Harvard rivals

Facebook, a popular social networking website, is headed to a United States court on Wednesday to try to quash allegations that its founder stole ideas for the company from a group of former Harvard University students.

The long-running legal battle revolves around accusations, strongly denied by Facebook, that Mark Zuckerberg stole ideas for Facebook after being hired as a Harvard sophomore by fellow students to write code for a site called Harvard Connection.

At issue in Wednesday’s largely procedural hearing before US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock is a motion by Facebook to force the former Harvard students to refine their legal claims or have portions of their lawsuit dismissed.

The case is in the spotlight due to the celebrity of 23-year-old Zuckerberg and the surging popularity of Facebook, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest start-up companies that has seen membership jump 25% to above 30-million since May.

Facebook is attracting intense speculation over whether it may be a takeover target by major internet players or is still on course to seek an eventual initial public stock offering.

The lawsuit was first filed in September 2004 by ConnectU, a successor to Harvard Connection, against Facebook, Zuckerberg and his co-founders.

Thefacebook.com, as it was then known, was set up in early 2004 as a social site for Harvard students but had already spread to other US college campuses, attracting hundreds of thousands of members by the time the lawsuit was first filed.

In the three years since then, the student phenomenon spread across the US and the world. A year ago, Facebook, which has relocated to Palo Alto, California, opened up the site to members of all ages.

A separate California lawsuit filed in 2005 by Facebook against ConnectU alleges ConnectU hired programmers to hack into Facebook’s site, stole thousands of e-mail addresses and then contacted Facebook members to win them over to ConnectU.

No trial date has been set in either case, although extensive depositions have taken place. The original lawsuit by ConnectU was dismissed on a technicality but refiled in March.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Court papers filed by ConnectU state that Zuckerberg agreed to work for Harvard Connection founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, then dragged his feet before launching Thefacebook.com in February 2004.

The lawsuit alleges breach of contract and that Zuckerberg misappropriated trade secrets, among other complaints.

Attorneys for ConnectU did not return calls seeking comment. The Winklevoss brothers and ConnectU’s legal counsel, plan a news conference in Boston after Wednesday’s hearing, a spokeswoman said via e-mail. — Reuters