Copyright, Defamation, Facebook, Federal Judges, Intellectual Property, Social Media, Social Networking Websites, Technology

Another One of Zuckerberg’s Former Classmates Tries — and Fails — to Cash in on Facebook

For years now, the number of people suing in hopes of getting rich through some tenuous connection to Facebook’s early days has been longer than the line in front of Wal-Mart on Black Friday. And with Facebook’s rumored multibillion-dollar IPO possibly happening at the end of this week, the list of hopefuls is only getting longer.

This week, a magistrate judge in Massachusetts tossed out another one of these suits, filed by one of Mark Zuckerberg’s former classmates. This suit was a bit unusual, though. Instead of going after Facebook or Zuckerberg himself, the man used a roundabout strategy of suing the producers of The Social Network for “defamation by omission.”

Keep reading to learn more about Aaron Greenspan, the man who says he is just too damn important to have been left out of the Oscar-winning movie about Facebook…

The Hollywood Reporter explains that Greenspan argued his omission from the movie — as well as his omission from The Accidental Billionaires (affiliate link), the book that The Social Network was based on — was tantamount to thievery:

[A] judge in Massachusetts has dismissed with prejudice a lawsuit from one of Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmates, Aaron Greenspan. The plaintiff claimed that he was robbed of glory for playing a role in the founding of Facebook when author Ben Mezrich changed his name in The Accidental Billionaires and Columbia Pictures omitted any reference to him in 2010 best picture Oscar nominee The Social Network.

Despite the alleged slight, Greenspan is already more than a nobody. He wrote his own unpublished autobiography, which came out before Billionaires. The piece led to a New York Times profile piece and a settlement with Zuckerberg. But apparently that wasn’t enough:

He was once profiled in The New York Times and showed the paper his old e-mails to Harvard classmates describing his own pre-Zuckerberg college social networking website as “the Face Book.” He wrote an unpublished autobiography entitled Authoritas: One Student’s Harvard Admissions, which is listed as a secondary source in Mezrich’s book. And after Zuckerberg attempted to trademark “Facebook,” Greenspan filed an opposition, leading in 2009 to a confidential settlement between Greenspan and Zuckerberg.

The best part of this story is Greenspan’s allegation of “defamation by omission,” essentially arguing that by leaving him out of the film, the movie producers suggested he was irrelevant to the company’s origin story. U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Collings, of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, didn’t buy it. He wrote the following in last week’s decision (which you can see in full here):

Essentially, Greenspan contends that the harm resulting from the omissions was that he was robbed of his proper recognition for his role in the origins of Facebook; that is not a claim of defamation.

Greenspan also said that The Accidental Billionaires and The Social Network committed copyright infringement of his book by describing similar scenes and events. Still, no dice. But the claim did lead to an interesting discussion of subtle differences between “legal and illegal copying and how an author sets up a scene.” Eriq Gardner from the Reporter provided some good examples from the ruling:

The described furniture in Summers’ office is an “unprotected fact,” but Greenspan’s “choice to include particular details would enjoy copyright protection.”

Describing the ethnicity of Summers’ assistant is not protected, but the “original expression of the idea of an assistant taking notes should enjoy copyright protection.”

Characters uttering the phrase, “What do you want me to do?” and “I don’t see” are not protected, but “Summers’ unwelcoming manner and inability to see the students’ point of view would enjoy copyright protection.”

The idea of being frustrated at anticipated punishment for exposing security flaws is not protected, but an “original expression of his frustrations should enjoy copyright protection.”

Unsurprisingly, Greenspan has already appealed the decision. How long will his suit drag on? If we can learn anything from the Winklevii and Paul Ceglia, my money is on “a long time.”

Columbia Pictures Wins ‘Social Network’ Lawsuit Over Zuckerberg Classmate [Hollywood Reporter]

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