Columbia Pictures Wins 'Social Network' Lawsuit Over Zuckerberg Classmate

Social Network Key Art Awards - H 2011
Sony Pictures

Social Network Key Art Awards - H 2011

As Facebook gets ready for its IPO this week, 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.

In the decision, the judge has dismissed the allegations along with other claims that the book and film infringed the copyright on Greenspan's autobiography.

Greenspan's lawsuit was a strange one for sure, but he didn't come to a Massachusetts federal court as a nobody.

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 He wrote an unpublished autobiography entitled Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions, which is listed as a secondary source in Mezrich's book.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.

Notwithstanding Greenspan's alleged influence in the founding of the company, which is expected to raise some $11 billion in public investment this week, his lawsuit raised some quirky issues for U.S. magistrate Judge Robert Collings.

For instance, Greenspan alleged a developing tort called "defamation by omission" -- essentially, by leaving his name out of the film, it was suggested that Greenspan was irrelevant in Facebook's origins.

Collings doesn't buy it. In the ruling issued last week, he says that even assuming Greenspan's theories are plausible, it isn't reasonable to infer he'd be held up to scorn, hatred, ridicule or contempt. He writes, "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."

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Greenspan also attempted to push the notion that because Mezrich's book was labeled nonfiction, there was a misrepresentation. Again, the judge isn't swayed. "The term nonfiction only means that the literature is based on true stories or events, not that every statement is in fact demonstrably true," writes the judge.

Greenspan comes closer -- but ultimately fails -- in pushing allegations that The Accidental Billionaires and The Social Network were copyright infringements of his autobiography. In particular, Greenspan had claimed that the scene where Harvard president Lawrence Summers meets Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss was too similar to his own book.

This gets Collings into a discussion of the difference between legal and illegal copying in how an author sets up a scene. Here are examples of the judge describing some of the differences:

  • 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."

In other words, basic ideas and a listing of facts isn't worth much legally, but choices in arrangement and author flourishes like how people are responding to the facts can be copyrighted.

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Collins sees some statements like “the president will see you" as being a cliché expression and other descriptions of things like "the desk, shelves, and computer" as falling within the doctrine of scenes a faire as inherent characteristics of an office. So, fail. The judge does note some similarities between the works that would meet the criteria above but not "that the copying was so extensive that an ordinary observer could conclude that there was unlawful appropriation."

Thus, Greenspan's claim of copyright infringement is dismissed too. (The full decision is on the next page.)

Greenspan has wasted no time in seeking to friend a higher authority. He's already filed a notice to appeal the judgment up to the First Circuit.


Twitter: @eriqgardner