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They'll risk $160 million in fight over Facebook

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Los Angeles Times
Published:
  • Tyler Winklevoss (left) and his identical twin brother Cameron Winklevoss say that they and another friend had the original idea for the social networ...

    Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

    Tyler Winklevoss (left) and his identical twin brother Cameron Winklevoss say that they and another friend had the original idea for the social network Facebook. They settled with Facebook and founder Mark Zuckerberg, but are contesting the out-of-court settlement reached three years ago.

SAN DIEGO -- Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss say they -- not Mark Zuckerberg -- invented Facebook.
And they are willing to risk $160 million for the chance to prove it.
The ambitious young Olympic rowers made famous in the Oscar-nominated "The Social Network" are taking their last shot at the gold -- in London in 2012 and in San Francisco, where they are contesting an out-of-court settlement they reached with Facebook three years ago. If they prevail, their legal appeal would overturn the settlement, now worth in excess of $160 million because of the soaring value of the privately held company.
The Winklevosses won't say exactly how much they would seek in their high-stakes grudge fest with the billionaire Facebook founder, but by their own calculations they argue they should have received four times the number of Facebook shares. That would make any new settlement worth more than $600 million based on a recent valuation of Facebook at more than $50 billion.
The Winklevosses, who have taken a lot of guff for pursuing Facebook after having already negotiated such a hefty payout, say they came close to dropping the appeal but "just couldn't do it."
They insist it's not about the money. They say they are fighting out of moral principle.
"If it was about the money, we would walk away right now," Cameron Winklevoss said during an interview in San Diego, where the brothers have been training for the Olympics. "Mark Zuckerberg wouldn't be sitting where he is if it weren't for us. They think it's over. We believe there is another chapter to be written."
Facebook doesn't see it that way. "We consider the Winklevoss matter closed," company spokesman Andrew Noyes said.
Zuckerberg, in a recent interview on CBS' "60 Minutes," said he had spent less than two weeks worrying about the Winklevosses' lawsuit. When asked whether he had any regrets, he replied: "After all this time, I feel bad that they still feel bad about it."
For the last six years, the Winklevosses have been brawling with Facebook over their contention that Zuckerberg ripped off his Harvard classmates to build the world's most popular social networking site.
In a sequel that picks up where "The Social Network" leaves off, the Winklevosses in January asked a federal appeals court to overturn the 2008 settlement, saying they were duped about the value of the shares they would receive.
"To me, it looks like it's got everything you would want in a contract," U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said during a January hearing where the Winklevosses, dressed in identical dark suits but different-colored ties, watched the legal proceedings from the front row in the courtroom. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.
Facebook has won multiple court rulings, and legal experts say the Winklevosses are likely to lose this one too.
"You always have a shot; it's just a long shot," Brooklyn Law School securities professor James Fanto said. "The courts are very reluctant to reopen settlements in the absence of significant fraud in the context of the settlement."
The controversial origins of Facebook -- who actually founded it and how -- have been the subject of renewed debate since Hollywood offered its dramatization of the conflicting stories from the Winklevosses, both portrayed in "The Social Network" by actor Armie Hammer, and former Zuckerberg friend and Harvard classmate Eduardo Saverin, portrayed by Andrew Garfield. In 2005, Saverin sued Facebook for diluting his stake in the company and reportedly reaped a $1.1-billion settlement.
Zuckerberg has called the film, which received eight Academy Award nominations including best picture, "fiction." In it, his character tells the Winklevosses: "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook."
But that's exactly what the Winklevosses said they did. They accuse Zuckerberg of stringing them along for three months while he had access to their site's source code, which had been in development for more than a year. During that period, they say, they exchanged 52 e-mails and had three meetings with Zuckerberg. They learned from an article in their college newspaper that Zuckerberg had launched Facebook, which they say lifted the concept behind their Harvard Connection, later renamed ConnectU.
"Mark didn't just steal an idea; he sabotaged our business and the partnership we all had," Tyler Winklevoss said.

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