Founders of ConnectU.com have filed a federal lawsuit against the creator of thefacebook.com, Mark Zuckerberg, claiming Zuckerberg stole their concept while working on code for the Harvard graduates’ version of an online social networking service, said ConnectU co-founder Tyler Winklevoss Tuesday.
Zuckerberg, now a Harvard junior, was helping program Winklevoss’ website when he registered thefacebook.com on Jan. 11.
“Yes, we have filed a lawsuit, but we do not wish to comment on it at this time,” said Winklevoss, who founded ConnectU along with his twin brother, Cameron, and their friend Divya Narendra, all 2004 Harvard alumni.
Chris Hughes, spokesman for thefacebook and Zuckerberg’s roommate, also refused to comment on the lawsuit, but acknowledged it and the parties’ conflict.
“Their claims are completely unfounded,” Hughes said.
He would not elaborate further.
Winkelvoss said a programmer who had to leave the project for personal reasons referred Zuckerberg, who verbally agreed to help write code for part of the website, originally called HarvardConnection.
According to a Nov. 30 email obtained by The Daily Free Press, Zuckerberg told Cameron Winkelvoss that he didn’t expect completion on the project, which had been in production for 10 months, to be difficult.
“I read over all the stuff you sent and it seems like it shouldn’t take too long to implement, so we can talk about that after I get all the basic functionality up tomorrow night,” the email read.
Zuckerberg put together a portion of the code, emailing Cameron Winklevoss the following day to say, “I have everything working on my system now. I’ll keep you posted as I patch stuff up and it starts to become completely functional.”
Tyler Winklevoss said after that, Zuckerberg failed to show them any progress on the site but reassured them it would be operational shortly. Zuckerberg continued to delay work because of problem sets, other homework and final projects.
In a Jan. 8 email, Zuckerberg said he was “completely swamped with work [that] week” but had “made some of the changes … and they seem[ed] to be working great” on his computer. He said he could discuss the site starting the following Tuesday, on Jan. 13.
According to whois.com, Zuckerberg registered the domain www.thefacebook.com on Jan. 11, 2004. When the parties met three days later, on Jan. 14, Tyler Winklevoss said Zuckerberg reported progress on the website and told them he would continue to work on it. Zuckerberg also said he would email the group later in the week and then get in touch when spring semester began to discuss the site further, Winklevoss said.
“He gave no indication he was doing his own take on our idea,” Tyler Winklevoss said, adding that Zuckerberg told the group he was working on a “personal project,” although he did not mention thefacebook by name.
On Jan. 22, Cameron Winklevoss sent an email to Zuckerberg to check the status of the site and never received a response. On Feb. 4, thefacebook.com was launched. The Winklevoss learned about the website the following Monday in an article in The Harvard Crimson.
“We were like ‘What? He cut us out,'” Tyler Winkelvoss said.
Tyler Winklevoss said the group was angry that Zuckerberg never fulfilled his end of their bargain, but Zuckerberg said in a Feb. 12 email he had done what was asked of him.
“Originally, I was intrigued by the project and was asked to finish the Connect (Professional) side of the website. I did this,” the email read. Zuckerberg went on to say after their Jan. 14 meeting, he began working on thefacebook, “using none of the same code nor functionality that is present in HarvardConnection” and that “this was a separate venture, and did not draw on any of the ideas discussed in our meetings.”
But ConnectU programmer Victor Gao said he initially discovered problems in the work Zuckerberg left behind.
“When I looked at the code and architecture of ConnectU in the beginning of February, after Mark [Zuckerberg] was no longer with the project, I discovered, one, key parts of the Professional side did not work, such as the full search. Two, minor parts of the professional side still incomplete, such as a fully-working registration process. And three, some parts [were] implemented incorrectly, such as the professional handshaking procedure,” Gao said.
Gao said Wednesday in an email, that he recently looked at Zuckerberg’s work and believed “it was quite apparent that Mark’s ‘work’ on the site amounted to about two hours of essentially a search-and-replace operation over the existing code I had written.”
According to a Feb. 9 Crimson article, Zuckerberg chided Harvard for not creating an online social networking service and bragged about how fast he completed thefacebook.
“I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week,” he said.
ConnectU founders said they felt Zuckerberg had stalled their progress and that he had violated Harvard’s Honor Code and Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities by not telling them he was working on a competing site.
But Hughes categorized all claims against thefacebook creator as “unfounded” and would not directly comment about each specific claim, although he suggested that the circumstances were subjective and could be painted in a different light.
“It would be inaccurate to say Mark [Zuckerberg] sabotaged [their project],” he said.
Narendra and the Winklevosses wrote a letter to Harvard’s Administrative Board, citing the Honor Code, which “expects that all students will be honest and forthcoming in their dealings with the members of this community.”
Tyler Winklevoss said he and his brother spoke with John O’Keefe, administrative Harvard College dean and administrative board secretary, and concluded Zuckerberg’s actions, while not academically dishonest, did violate the general honor code in dealings with students.
The Ad Board refused to hear the case in full, an outcome Tyler Winklevoss called a “disappointing reaction.”
O’Keefe declined to comment, citing the university’s confidentiality policies.
Hughes admitted he didn’t know the details of the proceedings but said the outcome had “proven wise of them [the board] to realize the claim was unfounded.”
In May 2004, the ConnectU group submitted another similar letter, this time to Harvard President Lawrence Summers. Tyler Winklevoss said Summers told him and his brother that he dismissed the matter because it was beyond the jurisdiction of the school and that the school would not issue a statement on the matter.
Tyler Winklevoss said that the lawsuit wasn’t something the group was going to “fall back on” and that they feel they were wronged and Zuckerberg should be held accountable.
“Our site’s going to be successful with or without the suit,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”