RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The success of the social networking site Facebook has spawned knockoffs around the world; now Facebook is striking back. Last month, it filed a lawsuit against Germany's top social networking site called studiVZ, alleging it copied the look and feel of Facebook. Executives at the German Web site say Facebook is just being a cyber-bully.
From Berlin, Susan Stone reports.
SUSAN STONE: studiVZ is short for studenten verzeichnis, or student directory, and like the original Facebook it was designed to keep networks of students in touch. That's not the only thing they have in common.
Mr. GREGOR HOCHMUTH (Web Applications Developer): You have (German spoken) so that' my profile, my friends, my photos.
STONE: Gregor Hochmuth is a Web applications developer in Berlin. Unlike most Germans, he uses Facebook as well as studiVZ. He says the two sites share some remarkable similarities.
Mr. HOCHMUTH: studiVZ hasn't changed its design. So if you want to know what Facebook looked like about three years ago, you can go there. At the time, it literally was Facebook just copied in red.
STONE: In fact, studiVZ was launched in 2005 by German fans of Facebook. It quickly grew to a membership of about 10 million users in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It was so successful, Facebook considered acquiring the site, but it was bought by a German publishing house instead.
Facebook was still determined to go after German Web users. They're one of the largest online populations in Europe. So in March it launched a German version of Facebook. A few months later, Facebook filed its suit against studiVZ in a California court.
StudiVZ immediately hit back with a statement, read here by an actor.
Unidentified Man (Actor): 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.
STONE: But that might not be so easy for Facebook.
Mr. ANTHONY FALZONE (Stanford Law School): The first difficulty they run into is studiVZ is in Germany. So Facebook has sued them here on the theory that by logging in to the Facebook site they agreed to be subject to suit in California.
STONE: Anthony Falzone runs the Center for Internet and Society's Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School. He says the line between an innovation and a copy can be blurry, and it's important to remember that intellectual property rights are there to protect innovation.
Mr. FALZONE: That's essential to healthy competition because that lets the person who can execute the idea best win in the marketplace, and that's what protects a healthy, competitive marketplace.
STONE: studiVZ did come to Germany's market first, and even if they did take ideas from Facebook, Web entrepreneur Gregor Hochmuth, who says he hates what he calls copy-and-paste innovation, grudgingly admires what studiVZ has pulled off.
Mr. HOCHMUTH: It's not easy to do a copycat. It may look like an easy thing to do, but actually growing such a copycat is just as hard as building a company that's otherwise your original idea.
STONE: Some say Facebook's lawsuit is a PR move, aimed at drawing German users to its new site, which still has mere one-tenth the membership of studiVZ. Whether or not that's the case, the lawsuit is a sign that Facebook sees its German rival as a serious threat, as the company reaches out to users in other countries.
studiVZ has already translated its success with Polish, French, Italian and Spanish versions of its service, and its site for non-students, meinVZ, is even available in Facebook's native tongue, English.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone in Berlin.
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