Software writer wins suit against pal in Sacramento court

Dustin Adler is a computer programmer and software writer.

This true son of the dot-com generation has a story to tell about his best friend stealing a valuable software platform Adler created.

He told that story late last month to jurors in Sacramento federal court, and they awarded him more than $1.1 million in damages.

It wasn’t the $2.3 million his erstwhile friend had sold the software for, but “I got the justice I deserved,” said Adler, 28.

“It never really was about the money. I wanted people to know what a jerk he is. I just wish I had known it sooner.

“But he was my best friend, the best man at my wedding. I couldn’t believe he would steal from me. Even now, I sometimes find myself missing him.”

In a lengthy interview after the verdict, Adler described a series of covert maneuvers through which his friend commandeered control of Adler’s software and the Web site it drives.

Intellectual property disputes rarely go to trial. But Michael DiCarlo, owner of RelyNet Inc. in Rancho Cordova, stubbornly refused to settle, according to Adler.

At the close of a seven-day trial, including 7 1/2 hours of deliberations, an eight-member jury found Wednesday that both DiCarlo and his company had infringed upon the copyright on Adler’s software and awarded him $1,110,699 in damages.

The panel also awarded DiCarlo $3,200 on his claim that Adler had unlawfully accessed RelyNet’s computers, when he fixed it so he could easily remove the software as the pair’s relationship was about to run aground.

Adler’s attorney, Glenn Peterson, said the jury was “not at all intimidated by the technical stuff, nor were they overwhelmed by complicated rules of law. They were all business, and their verdict reflects that.”

Reached Friday by telephone, DiCarlo said, “I am definitely disappointed. We will definitely appeal. We definitely don’t feel justice was done.” But, he said, “I feel it is definitely ongoing, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment at this time.”

Adler’s career was launched when he was 9 by his grandmother, who gave him a book on programming, which he promptly devoured, and a computer.

“It was IBM’s original PC. I believe it came out in 1981 (the year Adler was born). It was … a big beige box that weighed about 60 pounds.”

About the same time, he met DiCarlo, a fellow second-grader at Victory Christian School in Fair Oaks. They went through their sophomore year at Capital Christian High School together.

DiCarlo, now 29, dropped out and formed RelyNet, which offered Web hosting on a single server and resold dial-up Internet accounts, but proved unprofitable.

In 2000, Adler discovered a Honda Internet bulletin board that was losing its hosting capabilities. He saw it as an opportunity to engage more fully his passion for all things Honda and employ his computer skills.

He pitched the notion that RelyNet’s servers host, and DiCarlo, who shared Adler’s interest in Hondas, welcomed the idea. The site morphed into and got so popular it was overloading the servers.

“So, I took it upon myself to write better software,” Adler said in the interview. “I worked in my spare time in my bedroom in my parents’ home in Folsom on my own computer.” Thus was born the first version of ZeroForum.

Later in 2000, he said, “I rewrote ZeroForum from scratch to make it a commercially viable product. I set up a Web site with pricing and marketing to have a business presence.”

Adler converted all data on RelyNet servers into ZeroForum 1.0 using a program he wrote. Since then has been powered by Adler’s software. A Southern California company purchased the software, the domain name and the site’s posted contents from DiCarlo for $2.7 million.

Adler and DiCarlo had agreed they were equal partners in RelyNet. Adler brought the cyber know-how and DiCarlo took care of business and sales. There is little dispute that Adler’s software was the catalyst for their success.

But Adler said he caught DiCarlo on three occasions paying himself twice as much salary. “He always said he was sorry and promised our salaries would be the same, and then I would catch him again,” said Adler.

Things started going well and they incorporated, yet DiCarlo repeatedly put him off when he asked for his stock certificate, Adler said.

Things came to a head on Aug. 1, 2005, when Adler arrived at the company’s El Dorado Hills office to find a deputy sheriff blocking his path to the door.

“Mike pokes his head out and says, ‘You’re being fired for malicious activity,’ ” Adler recalled. “He hands me my final paycheck and my personal possessions loaded into a box, and tells me to leave. I lost everything that morning.”

A deeply religious person, he did not lose his faith.

“I told God if I got anything (from the jury), I would give half of it to Bayside of South Sacramento (a Covenant church). It’s hurting financially, and the pastor has had some hard times. I want something good to come of all this.”