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MSN search guru 'stole AltaVista code'

More Borlandgate than Watergate

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A Microsoft employee arrested by the FBI for stealing AltaVista search source code works for MSN's Search team, the Seattle Post Intelligencer has revealed. Laurent Chavet was arrested for accessing AltaVista computers after he left the company, between March and June 2002.

However, the story is more Borlandgate than Watergate. The alleged break-in took place before Chavet joined Microsoft. Chavet had been at AltaVista from June 1999 to February 2002. In between he worked at IBM's Almaden Research Center, which amongst many other accomplishments, in 1999 developed a Google-like search engine called CLEVER which IBM failed to exploit commercially.

Chavet was arrested on 2 July on one count of unauthorized access to a computer and one count of reckless damage to a computer. He faces five years in prison for each offense and a fine of $250,000.

Microsoft declined to comment on whether Chavet had incorporated source code in MSN's revamped search. Arch-rival Yahoo! acquired AltaVista and AllTheWeb.com when it acquired classified ads leader Overture in a deal worth $1.6bn last year.

Accusations of source theft are notoriously difficult to prove. But Microsoft's practice of hiring key staff from rivals has landed it in hot water in the past. It settled out of court with Borland after hiring Anders Hejlsberg, developer of Turbo Pascal and Delphi, and so many Scotts Valley employees ended up at Redmond that they formed a "Dead Borland Society", it was alleged. In 2001, the High Court in London upheld Symbian's right to enforce a clause in executive VP Juha Christensen's contract, preventing him from working for a rival for six months after leaving the company. Microsoft had poached Juha Christensen to take charge of marketing its phone business. ®

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