So Facebook is pretty popular, right? So popular your boss might have stuck it behind a firewall — so you can’t right now suck down your share of what is purported to be a $5 billion loss in productivity annually, thanks to its unrivalled ability to hold you to ransom with an unending game of Scrabble.
Facebook’s clean, streamlined interface stole away savvy users from its hideous predecessor, MySpace with no need to tinker in the Facebook backend, customising the page layout to within an inch of its life. Finding people you’d lost touch with through Facebook from say, highschool, was simple. It was a quickstep then to ex-lovers, work colleagues and estranged family members. It was a remarkable revolution in communication. It was also, thanks to being able to quickly search music and video content, incredible fun, and the web’s most giant time-suck yet invented.
The other functionalities for which people flock to Facebook (apart from Scrabulous) are also phenomenally popular. For example, more people upload photos to Facebook than they do to Flickr, the Yahoo owned, dedicated photo-sharing website boasting 2 billion photos on file. 14 million photos are shared daily on Facebook, and this is only one of the hundreds of applications — both native and third party — it offers.
Facebook also stays in the main, thankfully free of those horrid flashing banner and screaming smiley face ads. For now. Facebook founder and CEO, 23-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, was recently listed by Forbes magazine as the "world’s youngest self made billionaire", the magazine then going on to list his paper worth at US $1.5 billion – were he ever to sell Facebook in a deal similar to that which MySpace cut with News Limited.
Speaking of stupid, incalculable amounts of money, it turns out that Mark Zuckerberg may not, in all likelihood, have earned these theoretical billions on his own. Quite the opposite, he is currently the subject of two separate lawsuits filed against him by fellow Harvard graduates who worked with Zuckerberg on projects remarkably similar to how today’s version of Facebook eventually turned out. Unsurprisingly, they feel entitled to at least some of his money for what could effectively be their code, which was "liberated" by Zuckerberg and then covertly built into Facebook, as the suits allege.
In the first of these suits, ConnectU (which, if you search in Wikipedia, redirects you to Facebook’s entry) founders Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra claim that Zuckerberg was hired – while all were Harvard undergraduates – to work on their project for a social networking site, similar to Friendster but specifically for Ivy League campus intranet users. They claim that Zuckerberg then took this code and used it to build Facebook. The case details have been suppressed, which as the New York Times reports, usually means a looming cash settlement.
The settlement may have saved Zuckerberg substantial embarrassment, at least for the moment.
Then, there was Aaron Greenspan. His soon to be published book, Authoritas is facing a suppression order from Facebook’s lawyers for copyright infringement – the use of its trademark in the full title (Authoritas: One Student’s Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era). Despite this, insidery Gawker Media blog Valleywag, has published excerpts of the book, specifically passages in which Greenspan explicitly accuses Zuckerberg of theft.
Greenspan’s houseSYSTEM networking project preceded both connectU and Facebook. He has various email communiqués to prove it. One of these, published again by the New York Times, uncovers Greenspan’s correspondences with Zuckerberg about his project, which Greenspan at one point called "the face book." Zuckerberg has yet to respond to these claims other than to issue no challenge to the chronology of events as they were reported.
The cut throat, massively high stakes world of tech start-ups and new programming developments is as fraught as any other is with theft, intellectual property disputes, outright intimidation and dirty dealings. In fact, it enjoys a long, long tradition of it, stretching back to the founding of Microsoft, a company famed for its monopolistic practices and the feverish battle for market supremacy pitched between it and chief rival Apple. Bill Gates was also a Harvard man, until he famously dropped out to found his Monopoly. Err, company.
The Facebook wars are further proof that there is still no legal framework in place to stop someone who has "modified" someone else’s killer concept – be it a film, a novel, a story pitch, a new flavour of gum, an operating system, a music player, a stupidly profitable website – from running away with it all the way to the bank. There seems a larger issue at play here, which is one of basic fairness, common decency and shared equity in crediting ideas as they should be credited.
In the case of Facebook’s authorship, it could turn out that the Harvard motto of Veritas is hardly worth the graduation paper it’s written on.