ConnectU struggles to prove that Facebook stole its ideas

The founder of Facebook stands accused of stealing the ideas and business plan of three men behind a rival social networking site. But a Boston judge yesterday told ConnectU's founders that they must produce more evidence to support its claims.

Before starting Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg worked with Divya Narendra and Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss on Harvard Connection, a website which later became ConnectU. All four were Harvard students and the three ConnectU founders hired Zuckerberg after hearing that he was a talented web programmer.

The three men behind the suit say that 23 year old Zuckerberg was hired in November 2003 to write computer code for the site for delivery by June 2004. Facebook was launched in February 2004.

They claim that 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".

Facebook is the latest online venture to attract the attention of the mainstream media and potential investors.

Launched as a US university-only social networking site its profile has rocketed in recent months as it has opened its doors to anyone who wants to register. Its membership now stands at 31 million users.

In the wake of skyrocketing values and swirling hype surrounding sites which have broken into the mainstream such as MySpace and YouTube, Facebook has said that it would only sell itself for over $10 billion and is talking now of a stock market flotation.

Zuckerberg and Facebook are among several parties accused by ConnectU of copyright infringement, breach of actual or implied contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, unfair business practices, intentional interference with prospective business advantage, breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing, fraud and breach of confidence.

CNET News.com reports that Massachusetts District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock told ConnectU's founders that they need to produce more evidence to back their claims, describing their case as "gossamer thin on the question of contract." They have been given until 8th August to file a revised complaint.

In the years since its founding, ConnectU has faltered. It has just 70,000 members and its founders have admitted that they have not actively worked on the site since 2005.

Zuckerberg's lawyers, who have asked for the case to be thrown out of court, have argued that the allegations are "broad brush" and not supported by the available evidence.

In separate proceedings, Facebook and Zuckerberg are suing ConnectU and others, accusing them of "illicitly employing the user IDs and passwords of friends who were registered members of the Facebook website [...] to gain access to the site and to steal information and data for commercial purposes, as well as to advertise to and solicit members fo the Facebook website to join www.connectu.com."

Facebook is the second biggest social networking site, behind MySpace, and fuelled rumours of a sale or float this week by hiring YouTube's chief financial officer, Gideon Yu.