Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Copyright Infringement and The Social Network

Maybe it's all the studying I've been doing for the APR exam that's got me thinking about copyrights and The Social Network, which I saw the other day at the Avalon on Connecticut Avenue. Very good movie, though my wife did compare it somewhat disparagingly to The Graduate for its lack of an iconic message for our times. Harsh.

The crux of the film is the issue of whether Mark Zuckerberg "stole" the idea of Facebook from some Harvard crew champions--buff, muscled Aryan types who actually exhibited more personality in the film than you'd expect from your typical baddies. (They decided pummeling the scrawny computer programmer was inappropriate, as other baddies in other films might do, since they were "Men of Harvard". Very interesting).

Whether it happened this way in real life or if it was merely dramatized, these two rich guys/students (blond twins, naturally) first connected with Zuckerberg after learning about his reputation as a first-rate programmer. They asked him to help develop an exclusive social networking site for them and their 'elite' Harvard friends. Zuckerberg said he'd help, then apparently led them on for several weeks telling them he was working on code for the site, or was too busy to work on the site, or this thing or that thing with them apparently growing more and more perplexed with his excuses while he, inspired by the idea of an "exclusive" social networking site, pursued his own vision for what that might look like. Soon Harvard students were introduced to Facebook and the crew champions hit the roof.

Is that copyright infringement? Judging by the facts presented in the movie, the answer is an unequivocal no. Copyright law states that an idea is protected from public use as soon as a creative expression of the idea exists; when the Harvard crew guys met up with Zuckerberg, they had an idea for an exclusive social networking site but it did not exist in any manifest form. There may be other areas of legality surrounding intellectual property that I'm not as familiar with but in terms of whether these Harvard guys could reasonably claim a copyright on an elite social networking site, it only existed in conversation until Zuckerberg came along.

Additionally, if they DID want to complain about his theft, they themselves might have been asked to answer to the fact that they were 'borrowing' the idea of a social networking site in the first place. But as Zuckerberg says during the film, look, you have an idea for a chair, and chairs have existed for a long time. But you still have the legal right to make and sell your own chair.

The Social Network does suggest that Zuckerberg did make a kind of gentleman's agreement with the Harvard crew guys in agreeing to help them in the first place and then was less than candid with them as he pursued his own vision for an exclusive social network (Facebook, based on 'friends'). There are ethical issues there, no doubt. But if the question comes down to legal issues, then it wouldn't seem he broke any laws.

Of course, the film does conclude with the news that he settled a lawsuit with the Harvard crew guys for $65 million, so there might have been other issues involved in the real-life play-by-play that didn't make it to celluloid. But that goes beyond the scope the film The Social Network and this post. The movie was very much worth seeing and I recommend it to anyone who'd care to see how a social network phenomenon came to life.

1 comment:

Ashley Packard said...

Hi Joe,
I found your site while I was exploring the same question after watching the movie. Apparently, the copyright case stemmed from the allegation that Zuckerberg took the plaintiffs' code, which would have been protected by copyright law. You're right that copyright would not protect the idea. But theft of the idea might be covered by misappropriation of trade secrets and fraud, which were also part of the suit. Here is a link to a short article that provides a bit more information about the original case: