You too may own Facebook

Facebook has put the Winklevoss lawsuit behind it, but a new 'owner' has emerged with emails laying claim to a big chunk of the social network. Will Zuckerberg ever catch a break?

Think you might own a piece of Facebook? Better get your claim in now and beat the rush.

There are two big stories this week concerning the issue of who owns Facebook -- one sure to warm the hearts of Zuckerberg fans, the other not.

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First, the Winklevoss twins were dealt another, probably final, blow in their Quixotic campaign to wrest control of Facebook from their erstwhile Harvard classmate, Mark Zuckerberg. An appeals court has decided that a deal is a deal, regardless of what the parties find out after the ink is dry. As a result, the not-exactly-down-at-heels Cameron and Tyler, along with honorary Winklevii Divya Narendra, must settle for a paltry $165 million for the mistake of hiring the wrong Harvard geek to program their social network for them. Makes me tear up just thinking about it.

Did Zuckerberg steal their idea for a college-oriented network? Sure looks that way. Did Zucky conveniently forget to tell the Winklevii about Microsoft's strategic investment in his company at the time he was negotiating a settlement with the round-shouldered Olympians? Looks that way too. Does it ultimately matter? Not one bit.

Facebook is Facebook because of Zuckerberg and the other brainiacs he brought on board. ConnectU, or whatever the Winklevii ended up churning out, would not be the same animal -– and it's hard to imagine anything being more successful than Facebook has been. At best, it would be a forgotten footnote in the long history of obscure social networks.

Remember, it looked like Facebook might be headed down that road too, once upon a time. It only became a phenomenon after Zuck opened up the Facebook platform in 2007 to all of those annoying-yet-addictive apps. That turned Facebook from essentially an interactive yearbook (boring) to an online playground for adults. That's when the growth curve started to look like a rocket trajectory.

Before then, MySpace (or rather, My_____) was the big fish in the social media pond. Now it's a goldfish floating on its back, waiting for the clockwise swirl into oblivion. Maybe the Winklevii can use their Facebook settlement to buy it.

Meanwhile, another pretender to the Facebook throne has just re-emerged with new evidence to back his claims.

Web designer/wood pellet merchant Paul Ceglia originally sued Facebook last year, claiming he had an agreement with the youthful Zuckerberg that entitled him to at least half of a project he and Zucky were calling "the Face Book." Now he has produced a series of emails that allegedly document his claim.

If accurate, they do suggest that Ceglia and Zuckerberg were partners in something, back in 2003. They also suggest that Zuckerberg is a backstabbing little s***, as Gawker's Ryan Tate notes. But we knew that already.

Facebook is claiming Ceglia is a convicted scam artist who's fabricated the email exchange. And you can see why they might say that: Ceglia has been convicted of fraud (for taking money for wood pellet sales and failing to deliver said pellets), and illegal possesson of magic mushrooms, so it's possible he sampled a bit too much of his own supply -- the mushrooms, that is, not the pellets. It's also remotely possible his claims are true.

Even given how completely strange U.S. courts can be, it seems hardly likely a judge or jury would award half of Facebook to Psilocybin Paul. A $1,000 investment suddenly translates into $30 billion? I don't think so. The question is how much money it's going to take to make him go away.

My prediction is that when Facebook ultimately goes public, Mr. Ceglia will become a minority shareholder. That's the cleanest way out of this mess. We'll never know for sure because any settlement agreement will be sealed tighter than a frog's hind parts.

But if you see some ex-hippie at Facebook shareholder meetings holding a dime bag full of fungus, that'll be him.

Is Mark Zuckerberg only half as rich on paper as we thought? Did Ceglia hallucinate the whole thing? Weigh in below or email me:

This article, "You too may own Facebook," was originally published at Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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