July 24, 2007 12:45 PM PDT

Opening credits roll for Facebook's colorful court hearing

Opening credits roll for Facebook's colorful court hearing
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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.

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