The Facebook Fight

Who Owns the Concept if No One Signs the Papers?

WHO owns a bright idea? If the technology associated with an idea is new and the opportunities it offers are valuable, it will have many authors — most of whom may argue over ownership.

When disputes over the provenance of an idea become particularly turbid, disappointed entrepreneurs will look to the courts, which often are of little help. As Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, said, “The general rule is that ideas are free unless strapped down by contract or patent.” In practice, a great idea is owned by whoever expresses that idea most successfully.

[…] The Winklevoss brothers and Divya Narenda, another ConnectU founder, contend that Facebook’s founder stole the idea from them. In a suit filed in 2004, the ConnectU founders accused Mr. Zuckerberg of lifting their site’s source code and business plan when he worked for ConnectU as an unpaid programmer. They are asking that Facebook’s assets be transferred to them.

[…] Ideas, Mr. Feldmann explained, are protected either by trade-secret contracts or by patents and copyrights. “Trade secrets may be maintained indefinitely,” he said, but “it does not appear that ConnectU had Zuckerberg sign a nondisclosure agreement, and disclosing a trade secret to someone without doing so would ordinarily result in loss of any trade secret status.”

At the same time, Mr. Feldmann said, “copyright will not protect ideas themselves, only their expression” — in a Web site’s underlying source code, for instance. But if Mr. Zuckerberg was an unpaid, casual worker at ConnectU, and not an employee, then “he owns the code,” Mr. Feldmann said. […]