Opinion

‘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.