‘The Social Network’ and the case against intellectual property rights

In their film about the history of Facebook, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin found a way to make computer programming a little sexier: play up the rivalries, the parties, the relentless pursuit of fame and fortune, and add Justin Timberlake to the cast. But “The Social Network” should also be celebrated for casting an intellectual property dispute as its central conflict — and in doing so, chipping away at the legitimacy of modern intellectual property protections.

The film’s sympathetic but unlikeable protagonist is Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who must defend his online empire from lawsuits alleging that he stole other people’s ideas. But for theft to occur, someone would have had to own the ideas in the first place. Who can make such a claim? Best friend Eduardo Saverin, who provided the start-up capital? Twin brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, whose plans for an exclusive Harvard student network were upstaged by Zuckerberg? Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake’s character), whose advice propelled Facebook’s success?

“If you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook,” Zuckerberg sneers, dismissing the Winklevoss twins’ contribution to the existence of Facebook. Yet it’s indisputable that the networking site the twins envisioned at least partly inspired Zuckerberg, who gave them the run around for weeks while quietly launching a rival site.

Dubious as Zuckerberg’s tactics may have been, “The Social Network” does not consider him a criminal. Audiences shouldn’t, either.

Simply put, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss can’t claim ownership over what they accuse Zuckerberg of stealing. Ideas — in this case, an online student network — bear none of the qualities of property. They are abstract and intangible. They don’t exist in any physical sense. If another thinker has the same idea, the original thinker is not suddenly deprived of access to the idea; it simply multiplies.

This is not the equivalent of stealing your friend’s apple. It’s the equivalent of having an apple exactly identical to your friend’s appear in the palm of your hand. Your friend still has his apple.

Defenders of intellectual property protections will object to your apple on the grounds that its existence lowers the value of your friend’s apple; your friend won’t bother to grow apples if you can obtain yours for free. This creates a free rider problem, they allege, in which nobody grows apples and there are none to be copied.

But such thinking ignores that fame can be as compelling a reason to produce something as fortune. “The Social Network” recognizes that the monumental achievements of Facebook could only have happened in a world where people are free to engage, copy, and yes, even profit from, other people’s ideas. If Zuckerberg had heeded the Winklevoss twins’ cease-and-desist order early in the film, Facebook might never have taken off. The threat of legal force would have short-circuited the creative development process that gave birth to the second-most visited website in the world.

In an age where websites like Facebook have made it easier than ever for people around the world to interact and share their ideas, laws shouldn’t stand in the way of the free flow of information and innovation.

During a legal hearing, Zuckerberg makes the ultimate statement against intellectual property rights, asking, “Does a guy who makes a really good chair owe money to anyone who ever made a chair?” If people value Facebook and the system that made its development possible, the answer should be a resounding no.

Robert Soave is a writer and Michigan native. He currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.

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  • jjgott

    This article is arguing about a whole bunch of nothing since ideas cannot be protected by intellectual property rights.

    • JoeJ

      Please – what are patents – but ideas that are protected for a period of time.

      Your whole life’s existence depends on ideas that someone created. To ignore that is incredibly dishonest and immensely ungrateful on your part.

      Creating ideas takes work – to not compensate work in accordance with its value – is very wrong.

  • heathermc

    Social Network is a very good movie. And your column discusses my problem with the outcome of the lawcases. On the one hand, I can see why Zuckerberg’s ‘only friend’ should not have been written out of the business (altho really, he SHOULD have had his own lawyers with him when he signed those contracts; many people have learned that lesson the hard way for sure). But the Twins: I could not understand why they thought they legally deserved a part of Facebook. I think the remark made by Zuckerberg, that they had never lost in their lives, and they were not going to lose this time. The business about the chair is absolutely right on.

    However, I think Zuckerberg was forced to pay off both interests not because of the inherent legality of those claims, but because the next step would have been a civil trial with a jury, and Zuckerberg is definitely not a warm and cozy person. He would have been destroyed there and so paying off the vultures was a small price for him to pay.

  • llama

    While I agree that “such thinking ignores that fame can be as compelling a reason to produce something as fortune”, I think your comments miss a key point. The Twins claims were based on the assumption that they were in a business relationship with Zuckerberg and so it isn’t a matter of Zuckerberg’s apple lowering the value of the Twin’s apple – the allegation is that Zuckerberg’s apple is the Twin’s apple. While IP rights don’t generally protect ideas, contracts do embody a legitimate expectation that if we are working together, you won’t take my ideas and use them to compete against me.

    You do however raise an interesting point that the threat of litigation by folks like the Winkelvoss twins who could afford the extremely pricey cost of litigation in a federal court does stifle creativity. While there is often a discussion of the need for tort reform, society would derive much more benefit from reforming anti-competitive litigation and easing the ability and raising the penalty for l companies to make frivolous business claims which are more directed at putting people out of business than they are resolving an actual wrong.

    • JoeJ

      If Zuckerberg collaborated with the twins – then took the collaboration and ran with it – regardless of the law – he is a thief.

  • johno413

    It’s nearly impossible to patent ideas. It is possible to patent ideas that have been converted into something, even a web page. The battle will continue to rage in the internet era, just as it continues still with regard to software in general. Some equate software with language, and suggest that software is nothing more than a different translation of ideas. So, if you can patent software, why not a paragraph or a sentence?

    • llama

      The ability to patent software is extremely limited and generally relates to what the software accomplishes, not the code itself. Typically code is protected by trade secret laws and copyright.