Facebook: What's originality got to do with it?

Social networking also-rans revive accusations that founder Mark Zuckerberg stole code

Pity the innovators -- always hounded by the jealous hordes who clamor for a sliver of their success. And so it goes with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, though exactly who's the innovator in this scenario is a matter of some debate.

Zuckerberg is being sued by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (distant descendants of Rip Van Winklevoss) and Divya Narendra, co-founders of also-ran social network ConnectU. In late 2003 the Winklevoss/Narendra trio hired the 19-year-old to do some coding for their nascent network, then called Harvard Connection. They say they never received a line of code from Zuckerberg; coincidentally, in early 2004 plucky Zucky launched his own Harvard-centric social network, which he later expanded to other campuses and then the world. Now Facebook allows you to throw sheep and otherwise annoy millions of your closest personal friends, making Zuckerberg a paper billionaire, while ConnectU languishes in obscurity.

ConnectU thought that smelled fishier than a three-day-old mackerel, so they sued Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their source code.

Here's the sticky part. Last February, ConnectU's founders reached a settlement with Facebook. But after a Cyber PI discovered a trail of instant messages possibly relating to the case on Zuckerberg's laptop, they had second thoughts. (Apparently, neither the PI nor ConnectU actually know what the IMs say, only that they exist.) Now a judge is deciding whether ConnectU's founders can back out of the deal, presumably so they can cut a juicier stake from the Facebook cash cow when the site goes public.

If the charges are true, this wouldn't be Zuckerberg's first taste of -- how should I put it -- expanding on someone else's idea. While an undergrad at Harvard, Zuckerberg created a knock-off of the popular Hot or Not web site called Facemash.com. It used photos taken from Harvard's online student directory (which was called -- wait for it -- the facebook) and let other students rate their relative attractiveness or lack thereof. Facemash lasted less than a day before being pulled by college administrators, who very nearly expelled the Z-man for illegally accessing photos stored on the school's computers.

Shortly thereafter he was hired by the Winklevosses, who were apparently caught napping when lucky Zucky quit a few months later and launched Facebook.

It seems especially fitting that this case is in news now, given that Zuckerberg is The Next Bill Gates (spoiled, brilliant, arrogant, and whiter than the inside of an Oreo). Because Billy G. was not a guy to let a multi-billion-dollar franchise slip out of his hands just because someone else had the idea first. Remember when Microsoft got sued by Apple for "stealing" the Macintosh graphical user interface? It took five years for that case to settle. Of course, the Mac owed more than a bit of its technological inspiration to the Xerox Alto. Likewise, Borland was sued by Lotus for "stealing" the 123 interface for its Quattro spreadsheet, despite the fact that Lotus 123 owed much of its look and feel to VisiCalc.

Fact is, ideas are stolen every day, and it's almost never the Joes or Janes with the original concept who end up cashing in. It's the execution of the idea that counts. And despite a few stumbles -- like violating its users' privacy -- Facebook has been executed rather brilliantly.

If a judge or jury decide ConnectU can back out of its agreement (or was fraudulently induced to settle) and Zucky doesn't own the code he wrote, that will make the ConnectU folks much richer, but it's unlikely to do much harm to Facebook. There are simply too many friends to be annoyed and too many sheep to be thrown.

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Robert X. Cringely

InfoWorld
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