They thought they were so clever. And they were right. But clever people tend to attract attention and sometimes lawsuits too. Sometimes that’s just because they’ve made a lot of money and someone else wanted a slice. Occasionally, it’s because they got curious and stepped on someone’s toes. But it might also be because they’ve been naughty and need to go to prison.
Here are five of the ugliest court cases to hit geeks of different types.
Gary McKinnon – Alien Hacker
One case currently underway involves British systems administrator Gary McKinnon. Keen to find evidence of UFOs, antigravity technology and free energy, McKinnon made his way into 97 computers used by the US Air Force, Army, Navy, NASA, Pentagon and Department of Defense in 2001-2002. He also left a message promising continued high-level disruption and signed himself “SOLO.”
The Americans weren’t very sympathetic. They called his actions “the biggest military computer hack of all time” and estimated the costs of his actions at $700,000. In July of this year, UK Law Lords agreed that McKinnon could be extradited to face trial in the United States where he may receive up to 70 years in prison. His lawyers have lodged an appeal based on his Asperger’s Syndrome.
McKinnon claims that he found evidence that proves the existence of everything he was looking for. Describing himself as a “bumbling computer nerd” he also told the BBC that he accessed the computers using a Perl script that searched for blank passwords and that he usually hacked while under the influence of beer and cannabis.
Vladimir Levin — Master Criminal
Another hacker who faced extradition to the United States was Russian Vladimir Levin. In 1994, Levin succeeded in gaining access to accounts held at Citibank from which he transferred $10.7 million. Three of his accomplices were arrested trying to withdraw the funds from accounts in the US, Israel and Europe. Levin himself was arrested in 1995 during a layover at London’s Stansted airport and extradited to America where he received a three-year sentence. He was also ordered to pay Citibank $240,015 in restitutions. The bank says that it recovered all but $400,000 of the stolen money.
It was ten years though before it was revealed how Levin managed to penetrate Citibank. A member of a group of hackers sold the systems analyst the access information for $100.
Mark Zuckerberg — Facebook Hero… or Geek Thief?
It could have happened to anyone. While studying at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg was hired by classmates, Divya Narendra, Cameron Winklevoss, and Tyler Winklevoss to write code for their networking site ConnectU.
A short while later, Zuckerberg launched an oddly similar service called Facebook from his dorm room. The site took off, signing up more than two-thirds of Harvard’s students within just two weeks. Zuckerberg’s former bosses then sued him, claiming that he had stolen their idea, design, business plan, and source code.
The suit was dismissed without prejudice in 2007 and refiled shortly afterwards. In June 2008, Facebook settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The New York Times has also reported that emails prove Zuckerberg took ideas from Aaron J. Greenspan’s houseSYSTEM website.
You’ve Been Robbed by the Geek Squad!
It’s not just teenage game junkies who use pirated software. A 2006 lawsuit filed by Texan software company Winternals accused Best Buy’s Geek Squad of using its programs without a license. The two companies had been in negotiations to use Winternal’s systems recovery and data protection software and Winternal had supplied sample licenses for the duration of the talks. When the discussions broke down, Best Buy neglected to tell its Geek Squad agents to stop using the $1,200 software.
A judge granted a restraining order, demanded that use of all unlicensed software be stopped, and forced Best Buy to turn over all copies of Winternal’s programs within 20 days. Eventually, the case was settled and Winternals, then owned by Microsoft, released a licensed version of its program to the Geek Squad.
Bratz: The Lawsuit
Not all geeks are computer nerds though. In a case that should have scared the bejesus out of creative types everywhere, in 2005, Barbie-makers Mattel sued Bratz manufacturers MGA Entertainment and designer Carter Bryant for $500 million.
Bryant, the company argued, had produced the sketches for the best-selling Bratz dolls while employed by Mattel, and sold the ideas to MGA. That breached an agreement that Bryant had signed granting Mattel the rights to anything he designed during his time as an employee.
Bryant and MGA argued that the designer had produced the sketches between April 1998 and January 1999, when he was not working for Mattel.
In July 2008, a federal jury found that Bryant had created the Bratz line while was working for Mattel. Mattel was ordered to pay $100 million in damages. Bryant settled out of court.