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Opera sues designer for leaking trade secrets to Mozilla

Simplified browser UIs in the dock

Norwegian browser maker Opera Software has filed suit against Trond Werner Hansen, one of its former developers, alleging that Hansen took trade secrets with him when he went to work with Opera rival Mozilla.

As first reported by The Next Web, Hansen worked at Opera from 1999 through 2006. There he led design and UI development, first for the Windows version of the Opera browser, then for the cross-platform Desktop version. He later returned as an independent consultant from 2009 to 2010, at Opera's request.

Then in 2012, Hansen began to work with the Mozilla Foundation, makers of the open source Firefox browser – and that's when things got dicey.

According to Opera, Hansen's contributions to Mozilla projects included Opera trade secrets, and the company is now suing Hansen for 20m Norwegian kroner ($3.4m/£2.2) in damages as a result.

"Opera is of the opinion that the former employee has acted contrary to his contractual and other legal obligations towards Opera," attorney Ole Tokvam of the Bing Hodneland law office, which represents Opera, told The Reg via email. "Among other things, we claim that he is in breach of the duty of loyalty and his contractual and statutory confidentiality obligations."

Tovkam declined to discuss any further details of the pending case, including how Opera arrived at its figure of 20m kroner in damages.

Neither would the attorney provide any specifics of the nature of the trade secrets Opera believes Hansen has disclosed. But in documents filed with the court, the company cites a video filmed at a Mozilla event in 2012 as evidence that Hansen acted improperly.

In the video, Hansen discusses "Junior", Mozilla's experimental browser for the iPad, which features a stripped-down UI that lacks many of the traditional UI controls found in browsers for desktop platforms.

Superficially, at least, Junior appears to incorporate many ideas that Hansen advocated while at Opera, where for many years he maintained that the Opera browser's UI was too heavy and needed to be simplified.

But Hansen argues that these are simply his own ideas about UI design and usability, and not any kind of intellectual property to which Opera could lay claim.

"It is both sad and incomprehensible," Hansen told the Norwegian IT newspaper Dagens it. "These ideas of mine were never sold or transferred to Opera. I've always had an awareness of what is regarded as Opera's property and what is mine."

Hansen told the paper that he first learned of Opera's lawsuit in the summer of 2012, when he was living in New York City and pursuing a music career. Now those plans have been put on hold, he says, and he has been forced to return to Norway, where he lives with friends and family and has been selling off assets to support himself.

Tovkam has confirmed that Mozilla is not named as a party to the lawsuit against Hansen. In an emailed statement, the open source group told El Reg, "Mr. Hansen worked for a time as an independent contractor and is no longer affiliated with Mozilla Corporation."

For his part, Hansen says neither he nor his lawyers have had any direct conversation with Opera regarding the case.

"I am left with so many questions," he told Dagens it. "What does Opera believe they own? And why?"

Tovkam told The Reg that a hearing on the matter is scheduled for late August 2013. ®

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