Facebook filed an intellectual-property lawsuit in California Friday claiming that German social network StudiVZ copied its look, feel, features and services. With more than 10 million customers, StudiVZ is the most popular social network in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Comparisons of Facebook and StudiVZ show striking similarities in layout, function and form, with only minor differences. Some users have commented it is just "Facebook in German." The Facebook lawsuit also says knockoffs of its site may not perform well, and thereby damage the image of the original.
A significant difference between StudiVZ and Facebook, however, is the segregation of various audiences in the StudiVZ realm: it offers separate sites for students and nonstudents.
Critics allege the social-networking sites are identical except for their color and language -- Facebook is blue, while StudiVZ is red.
Facebook showed interest in acquiring the German site last year, but it was scooped up by the German publishing group Georg von Holtzbrinck for more than $100 million in January 2007.
Marcus Riecke, CEO of StudiVZ, commented Monday, "Now that Facebook, despite trying hard, has not been successful in the German market, the company seeks to obstruct StudiVZ through court action. Their strategy appears to be: If you can't beat them, sue them."
This isn't Facebook's only overseas competitor -- China's Xiaonei, looking much like the U.S. company's site, even trumpets that it is the "Facebook of China." But with a rumored $400 million in its coffers, Facebook may have to think twice about pursuing them. Xianonei has even more subscribers and page views than StudiVZ.
Merits of the Suit
"Look and feel" lawsuits have met with mixed results in the past in the U.S. In the 1980s Lotus successfully stopped competitors from copying the user interface of its spreadsheet program, while Apple fought Microsoft to a draw over the look and feel of its Mac operating system versus Windows 1.0. Microsoft agreed to a licensing agreement to use certain GUI elements.
It is unclear, however, how much of Facebook's look and feel is unique and original and worthy of intellectual-property protection. StudiVZ's Rieke said, "There are numerous social networks. Facebook was not the first and certainly isn't the only one. By attempting to harm StudiVZ through a meritless California lawsuit, Facebook is arrogantly laying claim to an international monopoly over social-networking sites that the facts show it does not deserve."
If the merits were not muddy enough, it is rumored that Facebook is about to unveil a totally revamped interface for its site.
A further irony is that Facebook itself was sued last year by ConnectU, alleging that it copied the very concept when it hired away a former ConnectU employee. That legal action has been settled out of court.