Who owns the Facebook idea?

Interesting piece in the New York Times. Facebook is being sued by the founders of ConnectU, who claim that Mark Zuckerberg nicked the idea from them.

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.

Here are the facts that are not disputed: In 2002, when the Winklevoss brothers were juniors at Harvard, they conceived what was initially called the HarvardConnection, which was to be a social network for the college. In November 2003, they asked Mr. Zuckerberg, who was studying computer science at Harvard, to develop the site’s software and database, promising to compensate him later if the venture prospered.

Mr. Zuckerberg abandoned the project in February 2004, a month after registering the domain name thefacebook.com. By the end of that February, his new site, also a social network for Harvard, had registered half the college’s undergraduates. By April 2004, it had spread to other Ivy League schools.

Very quickly, Facebook expanded to serve other universities, then high schools, then organizations as varied as McDonald’s and the Marine Corps, and finally the general public. By contrast, ConnectU never really got started: it didn’t open until May 2004, and, overshadowed by what became, simply, Facebook, today it has no more than 70,000 registered users…

Sadly (for the brothers), there was no written contract. And, as lawyers say, documents win cases.