Skeletons in the crimson closet: Facebook's latest Harvard scuffle

Aaron Greenspan, who claims ownership of Facebook, has petitioned to the United States Patent and Trademark Office in an attempt to cancel the social network's trademark on the name.

This post was updated at 6:17 PM PT to correct the title of Aaron Greenspan's book.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg never finished his stint as an undergraduate at Harvard, opting instead to move to Palo Alto and eventually become the world's youngest billionaire. But his days in Cambridge, Mass. continue to resurface, as allegations and accusations about Facebook's earliest days grow into ivy-covered drama .

The latest: Whether Facebook can really claim it owns the term "facebook." A former classmate of Zuckerberg's, having run into problems promoting a self-published book that uses the company name in the title, has petitioned to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to have the trademark cancelled.

Aaron Greenspan, a 2004 graduate of Harvard, has claimed ownership of the concept behind Facebook, based on a Web project he created in college called HouseSystem--a set of online resources for Harvard students including a feature called "The Facebook." And he deems the experience to be worth a read: Greenspan, who has run a small consulting and software company called Think Computer since the age of 15, wrote about it in Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.

Now he claims that Facebook's trademark on the term "Facebook" has made it difficult for him to promote Authoritas, and on Tuesday petitioned to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to have it cancelled. Facebook Inc. originally filed for the trademark in February 2005.

Greenspan told CNET News.com that to his knowledge, neither Facebook nor its legal team has voiced concern over his use of the word "Facebook" as part of his book title. The problem, he said in an e-mail, is that he wanted to use Google's AdWords program to advertise Authoritas and Google wouldn't let him, claiming that "Facebook" is a trademarked term. "When I tried to explain the nuances of the situation," Greenspan continued in the e-mail, "(Google) denied my request for an exception."

Greenspan claimed that as part of HouseSystem, he was using the term "facebook" and "face book" as early as 2003, but in his petition he does not request that the trademark be turned over to him. Instead he argued that colleges' decades-old practice of publishing paper "facebooks" of their student bodies. "The wide general acceptance of the terms 'facebook' and 'face book' are indicative of their status as generic terms," he wrote in his petition to the USPTO, "and as such they do not qualify for the protections of a federal trademark."

Facebook is not commenting on the matter. But regardless of the USPTO's reaction to Greenspan's petition, the media surrounding HouseSystem and the trademark controversy will undoubtedly raise the profile of Authoritas.

And Aaron Greenspan is certainly press-savvy; while a student at Harvard and later at the helm of Think Computer, Greenspan occasionally made headlines in tech publications, including CNET News.com for identifying security flaws in products like Microsoft Exchange and payroll site PayMaxx. When he went public with his claims about Facebook, he scored a New York Times profile. He has the e-mails to prove correspondence with Zuckerberg back in their Harvard days, but as with many ideas that emerge in dorm rooms rather than boardrooms, details over their actual inception are fuzzy.

According to Greenspan, the social network on HouseSystem pre-dated both Zuckerberg's Facebook project and its former rival ConnectU , whose founders Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra first started seeking legal action against Facebook in 2004. ConnectU had employed Zuckerberg as a programmer, and alleged that he pilfered the start-up's business plan and code in order to found Facebook on his own.

The ConnectU legal tiff continues to drag on, though it is reportedly close to a settlement . Greenspan, meanwhile, has not sought action over Facebook's intellectual property, choosing instead to make known his claim with a tagline on Think Computer's Web site: "Inventors of The Facebook. Authors of the impossible."

But Greenspan said he wants to get beyond the who-built-Facebook tangle. "Being told that I can't advertise my book in a reasonable, justified and completely legal manner is akin to denying my right to 'move on,'" he said in an e-mail, "and moving on is something I would very much like to do with my life. I have bigger and better things to work on."

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About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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