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Microsoft Corp.'s attempt to tap into the Chinese social networking market turned into a public relations nightmare this week after it became clear that the software giant's new microblogging site contains code that was largely copied from a Canadian firm.

Plurk, a small microblogging site that offers a service similar to Twitter but is aimed primarily at an Asian audience, accused MSN China's new service, Juku, of "blatant theft of code, design, and [user interface]elements." In a blog post on Monday, Plurk staff showed screenshots of the two services, which appeared almost identical. MSN China launched Juku in China last month, although Microsoft says the application is still in beta, meaning its development isn't complete. Plurk has been online since May, 2008, but was blocked by Chinese state firewalls earlier this year, staff members say.

It didn't take long for Microsoft to step in and shut down its service - only a few hours, in fact.

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"That kind of took us off guard a little bit," Plurk spokesman Dave Thompson said yesterday in New Zealand. "We posted this [blog entry]24 hours ago and they shut it down within 12 hours. We feel there's merits to the claim and I think they kind of understood that."

Microsoft was quick to admit the plagiarism, but blamed it on a Chinese vendor developing the micro-blogging application for MSN China.

"When we hire an outside company to do development work, our practice is to include strong language in our contract that clearly states the company must provide work that does not infringe the intellectual property rights of others," the company said in a statement.

"We are obviously very disappointed, but we assume responsibility for this situation. We apologize to Plurk and we will be reaching out to them directly to explain what happened and the steps we have taken to resolve the situation."

Plurk was originally founded and registered in Canada. However the site quickly became more popular in Asia. Eventually, several of the company's co-founders moved to Taiwan, which is now Plurk's biggest market.

Plurk is still a relatively small player by global standards. The site has between four million and five million members, Mr. Thompson said. By comparison, Facebook boasts about 350 million users.

The Internet buzz generated by the Juku incident (it has been the top story on several technology websites this week) may prove, inadvertently, to be the biggest advertising campaign for the Plurk site.

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"I think [the co-founders]are kind of happy with the response so far," Mr. Thompson said. "We'll just take it day by day."

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