Opening credits roll for Facebook's colorful court hearing

On the eve of the dismissal hearing that pits the social network against onetime rival ConnectU, nobody's sure what to expect.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
If indie cinema hero Wes Anderson--of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums fame--directed a quirky courtroom drama, there's a chance that it might bear some resemblance to what could unfold at Wednesday's impending showdown between social-networking sites Facebook and ConnectU.

The backstory of the legal squabble, after all, in which the three founders of college-centric start-up ConnectU have accused Facebook czar Mark Zuckerberg of stealing their business plan and code, reads like classic Anderson.

It's a melange of gossip about upper-crust Silicon Valley, allegations of old-school Ivy League skulduggery and an oddball cast of characters that ranges from precocious dot-com millionaires to aspiring Olympic athletes. In what other intellectual-property lawsuit are two of the plaintiffs a set of Harvard University-educated twins from Greenwich, Conn., with several international rowing championship medals under their belts?

But we still won't have much of an idea of where the plot might head until after Wednesday afternoon's hearing at a Boston courthouse.

"When you're 19 or 20, and working on things with other college students in the absence of legal documents and as a fun project that has some business potential, there's a lot of messiness that can happen."
--Justin Smith, blogger, Inside Facebook

"It's a story that could only come out of the Ivy League: the twins, Olympic hopefuls, against the tech entrepreneur superstar," quipped Justin Smith, blogger at Inside Facebook. "I think that people are just really attracted to the story of Mark Zuckerberg and how much the company has grown, and how Facebook has been woven into the culture of not only college students but beyond."

The dispute is several years in the making, having originated in the spring of 2004 on behalf of the founders of ConnectU--Divya Narendra, and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. The three Harvard seniors had originally conceived of the site, originally known as HarvardConnection.com, in 2002.

According to court documents, the plaintiffs had casually recruited fellow Harvard student Zuckerberg, then a sophomore (casting suggestion: Jason Schwartzman in a blond wig), to their fledgling enterprise in late 2003 after hearing about his Web development skills. Then, if the narrative of the complaint is to be believed, Zuckerberg stalled his work on ConnectU while simultaneously working on his own, similar project.

Claiming that Zuckerberg had stolen their business plan and structure, the ConnectU founders petitioned to Harvard's administration late in their senior year, claiming that it was an honor code violation. They were promptly slighted, as Smith and other longtime Facebook followers point out, because the school claimed that its honor code did not have jurisdiction over a matter that was not academic in nature. Then, that September, ConnectU took the case to court.

Media attention at the time was largely limited to college newspapers like The Stanford Daily, the Daily Princetonian and The Harvard Crimson.

In late 2004, Facebook was still a young site with fewer than a half million users, was still run largely out of Harvard dorms and had little reach outside of the academic community. But then things got bigger. Zuckerberg's alleged side project gradually expanded to a handful of other elite universities, then to colleges nationwide, then to high schools, then to corporations and then finally to the general population. At last count, Facebook had more than 30 million members.

ConnectU's original suit against Facebook was dismissed without prejudice, but on March 28, 2007, the company filed a new federal complaint in a Massachusetts district court.

Naming Facebook, Zuckerberg and early Facebook employees Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz, Andrew McCollum and Christopher Hughes as defendants, the case stands primarily on a charge of copyright infringement. Also included are charges of breach of actual or implied contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, fraud, breach of confidence and several other accusations.

Within a month, Facebook had filed a motion to dismiss the refiled ConnectU suit. The hearing on Wednesday will determine whether Facebook gets its way or the case goes forward. Both parties have yet to release official statements pertaining to the hearing.

Despite the backstory's semblance to screenplay fodder, the outcome is anything but scripted, at least for now. Legal experts were hesitant to comment on the potential result of Wednesday's hearing, possibly because it's wholly unclear as to whether the case will be dismissed again or if ConnectU's complaint will fare better this time. It's pretty complicated, considering that the deals crucial to both parties' arguments were sealed in dorm rooms, not boardrooms. There simply isn't the kind of paper trail that could easily augur an outcome.

"When you're 19 or 20, and working on things with other college students in the absence of legal documents and as a fun project that has some business potential, there's a lot of messiness that can happen," Smith explained. That "messiness" might be what pushes the case forward because it's just not that easy to dismiss it outright.

Add that to the fact that Facebook has indicated that it may be taking this seriously, judging by how quickly the company filed a motion to dismiss the case. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based social-networking site has been widely buzzed about as potentially headed for an initial public offering or a multibillion-dollar acquisition soon. A high-profile lawsuit is not what a company wants to have around in that kind of situation, and even if Facebook ultimately emerged victorious, the court battle could unearth some not-so-savory details about the company's early days.

But on the other hand, Facebook is Silicon Valley's favored child these days. The court might simply see the Winklevosses and Narendra as jealous of Zuckerberg and his team's success, and eager for a slice of the company's revenue.

"There are just too many things, in my view, that just look bad for the plaintiffs," Inside Facebook's Smith said. "In particular, there has been a period of three years of inactivity on the legal front. They have chosen not to pursue this matter until it was clear that there was something to be gained from it."

ConnectU also largely lies fallow now; Smith speculates that no real work has been performed on the site since 2005, giving the impression that its administrators gave up long ago. Co-founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, meanwhile, have bigger fish to fry: they're both training for a shot at the 2008 Olympic rowing team, and earlier this month, they nabbed gold medals in the heavyweight eight event and silver medals in the heavyweight four at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Ultimately, most of those in attendance will be walking into the Boston courthouse with no real idea of how or when the case will end. But one thing's for sure: if it goes through, this will be a hot one for the press.

"When you combine this kind of fascination with Facebook as a product with the media's inherent fascination with young CEOs (and with) college dorm room legal drama, it just makes for a popular story," Smith said. But we still don't know if this potential drama will even survive the dismissal hearing.

Perhaps, in trying to predict Wednesday's outcome, this reporter should've called up Wes Anderson for comment.

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