How Far Is Too Far?

Jul 17, 2007 Michael Wurzer

There’s been quite a stir the last few days about the lawsuit pending against Facebook by ConnectU.  For those not (yet) interested in social networking, Facebook is a wildly popular web site with a young CEO named Mark Zuckerberg, who is said to have turned down an offer of $1 billion for Facebook from Yahoo! and now there are rumors of a potential +$4 billion payday from Google or Microsoft.  Amidst all this is the claim by ConnectU that Mr. Zuckerberg stole their code to start Facebook.

What’s most interesting to me about this is that several bloggers are suggesting the ConnectU folks are just whiners who couldn’t execute, whereas Facebook did.  On the one hand, this argument resonates with my belief that software patents (protection of ideas) are unnecessary and stifling of innovation.  On the other hand, the Facebook case seems to go further than mere protection of an idea, to copying source code.  That’s execution of a different sort, and not one that’s going to get my vote.

Software is filled with stories of one company capitalizing on the ideas of another.  Xerox Parc has made fortunes for Apple and Microsoft, who were able to execute where Xerox was not.  Ideas are meant to foster new ideas; that’s the essence of innovation.  But that doesn’t mean people should be able to copy source code with impunity, too.  That’s neither innovation or execution and, if proven, will pose a very serious problem for Facebook.