Snapchat lawsuit tells a common tale: A start-up can have its Winklevosses

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

In the spring of 2011, Reggie Brown was a junior at Stanford when he approached a friend with an idea: an ephemeral text-messaging service that would delete photos automatically, seconds after they were received. The friend, Evan Spiegel, allegedly replied, "That's a million-dollar idea," and the two decided to recruit a third partner and build it.

Spiegel was wrong. It wasn't a million-dollar idea but a $3 billion idea — the amount Facebook reportedly offered recently to buy Snapchat, which is what Brown's idea had morphed into. On Snapchat, users set limits for how long their photographs will be visible to others, helping them protect their privacy and preventing intimate or embarrassing photos from being forwarded.

Spiegel turned down the offer. Brown was unable to turn down the offer because he was no longer part of the company. He'd been, he says, ousted by Spiegel and their third collaborator, Robert Murphy — sentenced to the footnotes of creation and the foothills of fortune.

He's suing, of course. A legal complaint, demanding a portion of Snapchat's worth, was filed this year, detailing the company's origins, as related above. Last week, video clips of the trio's depositions appeared on Business Insider: three handsome young men in collared shirts, awkwardly dancing around issues of creativity and compensation.

The written complaint from Brown's lawyers begins with an epic, potboiler opening line: "This is a case of partners betraying a fellow partner."

Brown is a plaintiff gunning for millions, but he's also an increasingly visible character type: the left-behind partner, the almost-success, the cautionary tale of the start-up world.

Take Noah Glass. A central conflict in the new book "Hatching Twitter" is the way that co-founder Jack Dorsey orchestrates the dismissal of Glass, the man who was responsible for much of the site's conceptualization and who came up with the name Twitter in 2006. (In an act of 140-character justice, Dorsey was eased into Twitter's background and pulled as chief executive, although not before branding himself, fairly successfully, as the sole visionary behind the operation.)

The most famous examples of left-behind idea men are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the Harvard rowing twins who, along with classmate Divya Narendra, enlisted Mark Zuckerberg to help build them a social-networking site. And who then were as shocked as anyone when Zuckerberg publicly introduced a little project he'd been brainstorming on the side, called The Facebook. Their story became the backbone of the Oscar winner "The Social Network" (2010), and their name became synonymous with inventors who were elbowed out of their inventions. Glass was Winklevossed. Smith appears to have been Winklevossed.

The Winklevosses were Winklevossed but compensated handsomely for it: They accepted a settlement from Zuckerberg for a reported $65 million and now run their own venture capital firm.

Weaseling a colleague out of fame, or accepting sole credit for a shared idea, goes back centuries, but in the app-happy 2010s, the money gets so big, so fast, for people so young. Jolly dorm-room experiments become 40-page legal complaints in a matter of months.

Are Winklevosses (Winklevii, colloquially) the tragic heroes of our time? The Oedipus or Thyestes, the King Lears? Their fatal flaw is trusting that old-fashioned oral agreements would keep pace with complex and quickly changing technology. In court documents and other media, they come across as morally correct, perhaps, but also as slightly grubbing and somewhat embarrassing. They undermine the creation myths we like to hear, in which one genius's idea transforms society.

Or, perhaps, the fatal flaw of a Winklevoss-type is being an English major, as Brown was — a discipline known for producing imaginative thinkers but not for producing people capable of coding websites.

The real issue that these court cases get at is the question of what it means to invent something. In Spiegel's deposition, he is asked who came up with the idea behind Snapchat. "Reggie did," he replies. But is coming up with an idea worth a billion dollars? Is writing the code worth it? Is landing the first financial backer? Is designing an icon, as Brown dictated the design of Snapchat's ghost mascot? In an industry in which some products succeed wildly while nearly identical ones flop, how does one calculate the alchemy that results in a $3 billion offer?

For evidence in the Snapchat case, Brown's lawyers have produced old emails, Facebook pages and text messages from Spiegel's father to Brown's mother, in which the parents crow proudly about their sons' industriousness.

The most problematic evidence for the defendants seems to come from chief executive Spiegel's testimony, although only a fragment was available for viewing.

"Do you think Reggie deserves anything for the contributions he made on the project?" Spiegel was asked by Brown's lawyer in his deposition.

Spiegel waits several seconds before replying.

"Reggie may deserve something for some of his contributions."