Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom, the founders of a P2P maze of Skype, Joost and other startups based on code owned by their company Joltid, are now suing one of their own former execs. Wednesday, former Joost CEO Michaelangelo “Mike” Volpi was the only individual included in Joltid’s copyright infringement suit against eBay (NSDQ: EBAY), Skype and an investor group planning to buy 65 percent of the virtual phone company. Today, Joltid and Joost — essentially, Friis and Zennstrom — filed a second suit against Volpi, reported here by WSJ, claiming that he used confidential information to broker the deal to acquire 65 percent of Joost, and against Index Ventures. Specifically, they claim that Volpi had direct knowledge of the P2P source code they used to build Joost — and their other properties — and, more crucial, perhaps, that he was involved in the effort to engineer the code to be used on a non-P2P system (a web browser). They also claim that Volpi was aware of their efforts re-acquire Skype and combine it with Joost.
Volpi, who left as Joost CEO earlier this summer and joined Index Ventures, was still chairman of Joost when Index Ventures and other investors teamed together to buy the controlling interest in Skype for $1.9 billion. Last week, Joost issued a statement saying Volpi had been ousted as chairman by shareholders and it was ‘investigating” him. (Strategic investors I contacted at the time were not aware of the situation.) Volpi has said repeatedly he has no comment.
A lawyer for Joltid explained to me earlier this week why the company singled out Volpi as the only named individual in the first suit. He mentioned claims in the media that Volpi masterminded the Skype deal, and that Joltid believes Volpi used confidential information to put the deal together. The suit filed Friday in Delaware Chancery Court reads like a John Grisham potboiler, claiming:
– Volpi is described as “a faithless fidicuary” who “took advantage of the trust and confidence placed in him to steal confidential, highly proprietary information relating to an extremely popular Internet-based technology, as well as other strategic, commercially valuable and sensitive information.” As president and CEO of Joost, Volpi, they claim, had access to info from both Joost and Joltid — including the Global Index P2P software that powers Skype and other Zennstrom-Friis efforts. Joost had the source code; Skype had more limited access — an executable-only code form of GUI. (That’s the license that is being litigated in the UK between eBay and Joltid; Skype’s continued use of the code is the subject of the copyright infringement case.)
– That the Skype acquisition “could not have occurred” without that info, claiming that “numerous sophisticated strategic bidders” including Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), couldn’t get comfortable with formal bids — “hardly surprising given that intellectual property essential to Skype’s business currently hangs under a cloud of litigation.” The charge is that the investors only would have been willing to spend that kind of money only if “comfortable” with the “enormous risks.” In addition to Index Ventures, the investor group led by Silverlake Partners includes Andreessen Horowitz LLC (Marc Andreessen is also on the board of eBay) and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. That comfort would come, they claim, from having someone involved who already knows how the subvert the code.
– They also claim that Volpi and Index lacked the “credibility and financial heft” to make the bid and only could attract that kind of money was to use use that info. (It’s worth noting here that Index Ventures was an investor in Skype when Zennstrom and Friis still owned it — and is still an investor in Joost.)
– They are seeking an injunction and claim Volpi has refused to return his computer and all confidential info he obtained.