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vBulletin sues ex-devs over 'from scratch' competitor

Forum giant sparks forum mayhem (again)

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Updated Internet forumware giant vBulletin has sued three former employees, a day before they were due to launch a competing forum-software platform via their new company, the UK-based XenForo.

The move has sparked page after page of complaints on the, well, forums run by both vBulletin and XenForo, and though XenForo has delayed the launch of its software, it indicates the launch will indeed go ahead.

As of 2pm Pacific Time on Tuesday, a thread on vBulletin's own forums — available only to paid customers — had topped 45 pages, and the discussion on XenForo had reached 77 pages.

Now owned by self-described new-media outfit Internet Brands, vBulletin filed its suit in the UK against both XenForo and its founders — Kier Darby, Mike Sullivan, and Ashley Busby — claiming copyright infringement, breach of contract, and unfair business practices. vBulletin announced the suit with a post to its website, accusing XenForo of using intellectual property belonging to Internet Brands, which purchased JelSoft, the original company behind vBulletin, in 2007.

"The suit is simple," the post from vBulletin reads. "We claim that Kier, Mike, and Ashley have infringed and violated contracts they signed with us to gain unfair business advantage. As such, Xenforo’s software unfairly stands on the shoulders of more than a decade of development by Jelsoft. Internet Brands owns this intellectual property."

XenForo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in the past, Kier Darby has said that the XenForo platform was built "from scratch" using the Zend PHP framework. Darby is the former lead developer and product manager of vBulletin. Sullivan is another former vBulletin developer. And Busby is the former vBulletin business manager. All three parted with the company over a year ago.

Adrian Harris, current senior operations manager at vBulletin, told The Register that he was not able to provide us with a copy of the suit, but he confirmed that it was filed on Monday. Though the suit arrived a day before XenForo was set to launch a beta version of its new forum platform, he said that the two events are unrelated. "The release date of XenForo had no bearing on when we filed the suit," Harris said. "We filed the suit based on when we had sufficient information to file the suit."

Separate from the suit, vBulletin sent a letter to the XenForo founders requesting that they halt the release of their product. "It isn't a legal request per se," Harris told us. He declined to say whether the suit seeks to prevent the release of the software.

Also as of 2pm Pacific Time on Tuesday, XenForo had yet to release its software — but a post to its website indicated that it was still planning to do so. "We are working as fast and hard as possible, however the unforseen circumstances encountered yesterday mean that the earliest juncture at which we will be able to release XenForo will fall after UK business hours," the post says.

Kier Darby, Mike Sullivan, and Ashley Busby parted ways with vBulletin in 2009, about two years after Internet Brands acquired the popular forum software, which runs online communities on 40,000 sites across the web, according to the company. A year after they left the company — in June of this year — the trio registered the XenForo domain.

In announcing its lawsuit against XenForo, vBulletin makes a rather pointed attack on the behavior of its three former employees. "We are stunned by the actions of Kier, Mike, and Ashley and believe they must not fully understand the laws of copyrights, contract or business torts," the vBulletin post says.

vBulletin claims that Darby and Sullivan used vBulletin intellectual property in coding the XenForo platform. "Perhaps Kier and Mike think they have 'refactored' enough of the code to skirt copyright law," the post continues. "Our analysis strongly indicates otherwise and we believe anyone skilled in understanding such things will concur.

"Perhaps they are of the misguided belief that because they created some of the vBulletin code as Jelsoft employees, they somehow have unique claims to that property. If so, that too is wrong."

Asked to describe the intellectual property XenForo has allegedly violated, Harris declined. "We hold the belief that technical aspects of the software utilize similar methodologies and things like that that are in vBulletin or due to be in vBulletin," he told us. Asked if XenForo was actually reusing vBulletin code, Harris again declined to say, but he indicated that this is covered in the suit itself.

vBulletin's post describing the suit also claims that XenForo's founders had violated contracts they signed with vBulletin, and points to bonus awarded to Darby and Sullivan. "Kier’s and Mike’s work as Jelsoft employees was the exclusive property of their employer, and the former owners of Jelsoft not only paid Kier and Mike well during their employment, Kier was paid a handsome bonus when Internet Brands bought the business, although no such payment was required," it said.

Asked to describe the signed contacts mentioned in the post, Harris again declined and said they too are discussed in the suit.

Since acquiring vBulletin, Internet Brands has endured a rocky relationship with at least some vBulletin customers. Last October, the company banned multiple paying customers from its own support forums after they complained about a new pricing scheme, and some paying users claimed that they were prevented from downloading software updates as well. The company said that the users had violated its terms of service and that they were given multiple warnings before the bans were brought down, but this contradicted statements from some customers.

Against this background, many customers also took issue with vBulletin's lawsuit against XenForo. "LOL. The [XenForo] code isn't even released yet," said one user on a private forum for paying customers. "I figured this would happen though. IB can **** right off. I'm not interested in doing business with a company that gets ahead with lawsuits."

His words were echoed by dozens of other paying customers. "I can't say if Internet Brands will win this suit or not," said a second. "But I am certain of one thing: Internet Brands will lose a lot of goodwill in the community and give XenForo a lot of publicity." ®

Update

XenForo has released the beta version of its software. It can be purchased here.

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