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Lawsuit accuses Google of code theft

Start-up claims an engineer stole software code to create the popular online social networking service

A Silicon Valley start-up has filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming an engineer employed at the search giant stole software code to create the popular online social networking service

The lawsuit alleges that Google engineer Orkut Buyukkokten stole code from former employer Affinity Engines to create Google's Orkut social networking site. The suit also alleges that Buyukkokten promised he would not develop a competing social networking service when he left to join Google.

Affinity Engines, which filed the lawsuit on May 25 in the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara, is seeking unspecified damages and royalties from Google.

Google spokesman David Krane confirmed the lawsuit, but said Orkut did not contain any source code from Affinity Engines.

"We have repeatedly offered to allow a neutral expert to compare the code in the two programs and evaluate Affinity's claims, but Affinity has rejected that offer," Krane said in an e-mail statement. "We have investigated the claims made by Affinity Engines thoroughly and concluded that the allegations are without merit."

Affinity Engines CEO Brian Samuels defended the filing of the suit, saying, "We think complaint speaks for itself and we're very confident on the merits of our case."

Google launched Orkut in January as an invitation-only social networking site along the same vein as the popular Friendster and Tickle. Social networking sites have become popular because they allow users to create online communities for people to interact and to meet other people.

A copy of the complaint forwarded to CNET shows that Buyukkokten and Tyler Ziemann, both students at Stanford University, conceived of an online social networking site in 2001 called Club Nexis. In 2002, the pair started Affinity Engines, but Buyukkokten--a Turkish citizen--left the company to join Google, saying he needed employment to gain a U.S. work permit, according to the complaint.

Prior to his departure, Buyukkokten signed agreements that he would not use technology from Affinity Engines with any other third party, according to the lawsuit.

In October 2003, Friendster rebuffed Google's offer to buy the company for $30 million. The complaint alleges that a Google executive turned to Buyukkokten to develop a competing social networking site. Affinity Engines asked Buyukkokten to return a CD containing source code for its social networking product, but Buyukkokten declined, the complaint said.

The lawsuit against Google comes at an inopportune time for the Web search giant. The company has filed for a public offering, expected to be one of the biggest this year. But it is embroiled in other lawsuits, including one by Berkshire Hathaway's Geico insurance company (which is also suing Yahoo). Google is also wrestling with Yahoo subsidiary Overture Services in a patent infringement battle involving the companies' search and ad placement technologies.

News of the lawsuit was first reported by Wired News.