(Reuters) – A U.S. judge on Wednesday gave a group of former Harvard students two weeks to finalize and back up their claim that Facebook Inc.’s founder stole their ideas to create the fast-growing social networking Web site.
The long-running legal battle revolves around accusations, strongly denied by Facebook, that its founder Mark Zuckerberg created the site based on what he learned when he was a Harvard University sophomore and was hired by fellow students to write code for a site called Harvard Connection.
U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock pressed a lawyer for the former Harvard students to define the exact terms of their commercial relationship with Zuckerberg, including whether it was purely a verbal contract.
“Dorm room chitchat does not make a contract, so I want to see it,” Woodlock told the courtroom in Boston.
The lawsuit alleges breach of contract and accuses Zuckerberg of stealing trade secrets, among other complaints.
The case is in the spotlight due to the celebrity of 23-year-old Zuckerberg and the surging popularity of Facebook, one of Silicon Valley’s hottest start-up companies. Facebook has seen membership jump 25 percent to above 30 million since May.
“We are pleased with the outcome of the hearing today,” said Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker in a statement. “We continue to disagree with the allegations that Mark Zuckerberg stole any ideas or code to build Facebook.”
Facebook is attracting intense speculation over whether it may be a takeover target by major Internet players or is still on course to seek an eventual initial public stock offering.
The lawsuit was first filed in September 2004 by ConnectU, a successor to Harvard Connection, against Facebook, Zuckerberg and his co-founders.
Court papers filed by ConnectU state that Zuckerberg agreed to work for Harvard Connection founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, then dragged his feet before launching Thefacebook.com in February 2004.
Thefacebook.com was set up as a social site for Harvard students but had already spread to other U.S. college campuses, attracting hundreds of thousands of members by the time the lawsuit was first filed.
In the three years since then, the student phenomenon spread across the United States and the world. A year ago, Facebook, which has relocated to Palo Alto, California, opened up the site to members of all ages.
ConnectU’s lawyer denied reports that it wanted Facebook to close. “There’s been some inaccuracies in the press that ConnectU wants to shut Facebook down. ConnectU wants to correct that,” attorney John Hornick told the judge.
A separate California lawsuit filed in 2005 by Facebook against ConnectU alleges ConnectU hired programmers to hack into Facebook’s site, stole thousands of e-mail addresses and then contacted Facebook members to win them over to ConnectU.
No trial date has been set in either case.