The founder of social networking website Facebook.com, Mark Zuckerberg, will be in court this week defending an accusation that he stole the idea for the site from three of his former Harvard classmates.

Billions of dollars and one of the most coveted pieces of Internet property will be at stake when Zuckerberg, described as "the next Steve Jobs," faces off against his accusers in a courtroom on Wednesday.

Facebook has been described as the most sophisticated social networking website on the Internet, growing with 150,000 new members every day.

The lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2004, accuses the 23-year-old creator of stealing the idea, the source code and the business plan for Facebook.

Zuckerberg's former Harvard classmates allege he snatched the idea from under their noses when they recruited the Web wunderkind to work as a programmer for their own social networking site, now called ConnectU.com.

The three former Harvard students, Cameron Winklevoss, his twin brother Tyler, and Divya Narendra, allege Zuckerberg deliberately stalled their site's progress so that he could set up Facebook six months ahead.

Court papers say Zuckerberg registered thefacebook.com on Jan. 11, 2004 three days after sending his accusers an email promising to deliver a "functioning Web site" for their project.

The claimants say it was a significant time advantage in the breakneck speed in the Internet world and they are seeking control of Facebook and its assets, as well as damages.

The two sites are so similar that ConnectU launched a service that allows Facebook members to upload their profiles straight on to ConnectU. But ConnectU's breadth is only a fraction of the size of its competitor.

ConnectU carries a message from its founders that reads: "Over the course of development, we've had our ups and downs. We've cycled through several programmers, even one who stole our ideas to create a competing site, without informing us of his intentions. But we've been troupers. At first we were devastated and climbed into a bottle of Jack Daniel's for a bit, but eventually emerged with a bad headache and renewed optimism. We weren't going to lie down and get walked over like this. So we regrouped, reassessed, and the end result is ConnectU, albeit a couple of months late."

The suit alleges copyright infringement, stealing trade secrets, fraud and breach of contract.

Zuckerberg denies any wrongdoing and wants the case dismissed.

Such accusations are common, CTV's technology expert Kris Abel said.

"When it comes to disputes of intellectual property, it's very common, especially in software companies. Every major company from Microsoft to Apple to even Research in Motion have had to put with lawsuits over who came up with the idea first," Abel told CTV Newsnet.

In court papers, Facebook representatives said: "Only one of (the students) had an idea significant enough to build a great company. That one person was Mark Zuckerberg."

Zuckerberg has already turned down half a dozen offers for the site and says he wants the site to remain private.

"It's already rumoured they turned down an offer outright by Yahoo for $1 billion. Rumours this week are that Microsoft is circling. They're hoping to purchase it for anywhere between $6 to $8 billion," Abel said.

But some have speculated he is biding his time as he waits for a more lucrative offer, although a sale could be difficult if the lawsuit is still dogging his site.