Defending Zuckerberg in The Social Network

social_network_xlgI finally got around to watching The Social Network recently, and I found it an excellent movie. Everyone who recommended it to me told me that it made Mark Zuckerberg look like an unscrupulous schemer who deviously stole the idea of Facebook, so imagine my surprise when I found instead that the exact opposite was true! It appears to me that the devious schemers are those who claim he stole Facebook from them, while Mark Zuckerberg, who is perhaps not the most likeable character, is clearly the one who is being wronged. In fact, the entire movie brilliantly demonstrates how desperate people are to claim another’s success and go along for the free ride – and highlights the importance of contracts and some of the absurdities of intellectual property laws along the way.

A quick aside: I know nothing of the true facts surrounding the creation of Facebook in real life. From here on, when I discuss Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook, I will be referring to their versions in the movie.

In the movie there are two parties trying to sue Zuckerberg. The first are the Winklevoss twins and their friend, Divya Narendra, who claim that he stole their idea and then misled them into thinking that he was working for them to get a head start. The second is Zuckerberg’s best friend, Eduardo Saverin, who was a minor influence in the creation of Facebook and played an increasingly smaller role as the movie progressed.

 Even without going into specifics, the fact that Zuckerberg had to settle for 65 million dollars when it is clear that only he could have made Facebook into what it eventually became should be more than enough to demonstrate the absurdities of intellectual property laws. One of the most brilliant quotes in the movie occurs when Eduardo is questioning Zuckerberg about the letter he received from the Winklevoss twins, in which they accused him of stealing their idea. Zuckerberg’s answer is perfect: “Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair, okay? They came to me with an idea, I had a better one”.

 Its true that the Winklevoss twins had an idea, and it’s true, it was similar to what Zuckerberg eventually created. But who’s to decide where exactly is the limit between breach of ‘property’ and vague inspiration?

To make it worse, it’s not as if Zuckerberg put a gun to their head and forced them to give him their idea. They voluntarily told him what their idea was at their own risk, and never once did they attempt to make him sign a contract ensuring that he wouldn’t do anything similar on his own. They took a risk and simply told him what they wanted to do, and there is no reason that even if he hadn’t eventually altered their idea (as he did) they should have any legal right to do anything about it.

The major issue is how on earth is one ever supposed to prove, definitively, that someone copied someone else’s idea and didn’t just come up with it independently? I suspect I’m not the only one who’s had a genuinely original idea – in my case, for example, a new recipe – done a quick Google search, and found out that actually hundreds of others have already thought about it. And yet as intellectual property laws would have it, out of the seven billion of us on this earth the only ones allowed to develop their creative and original ideas are those who patent them first – regardless of the fact that multiple people might have independently arrived at the same idea. Even more disturbing is that intellectual property does not necessarily reward whoever has an idea first, merely whoever manages to get to the patent office first (which I imagine favors the rich, who generally have more resources and free time at their disposal).

Even having established property rights, how exactly are we then supposed to decide how to define copying? Aren’t we all constantly expanding on what others have already begun, what centuries of thinking has led to? I doubt anyone would argue that Bill Gates copied Thomas Edison by including electric circuits in his machines. So where exactly is the line between inspiration and ‘theft’? And who decides where this line should be?

Property can’t be based on supposed thoughts going on inside people’s heads. In order for property to mean anything at all it has to be grounded in concrete reality. The fact that Mark Zuckerberg was the one who did everything means that it was his property – it’s not what someone might or might not have had abstract thoughts about that counts, its how they choose to act upon those thoughts.

As Zuckerberg elegantly explains to the lawyers questioning him, “You know, you really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook”. If it was their invention, they would have done it and there wouldn’t have been any need for discussion. An invention isn’t really an invention unless one also has the knowledge and means to make it a reality. Jules Verne didn’t invent the long-range modern submarine when he imagined one in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. It was invented in the 1900s by teams of engineers. It should be obvious that Jules Verne had no right to sue those engineers.

The alternative to basing property on physical reality is a system in which attempts are constantly made to appropriate other people’s work. A system in which everyone is constantly suing everyone else for the most ridiculous reasons, and winning often. And wait – isn’t that exactly what happens today? The Da Vinci Code was sued for infringing on the copyright of a work of non-fiction that was allegedly written in the same ‘manner’. Google was sued multiple times for selling keywords that happen to be trademarked names of certain companies. And Amazon sued Barnes & Noble for introducing a similar version of 1-click payment. Even if many of these absurd cases are ultimately dismissed, they still require protracted legal battles and a ridiculous waste of resources.

I think that what makes viewers of The Social Network turn on Zuckerberg is his apparent betrayal of his best friend, Eduardo Saverin. And yet I believe that here too the movie makes an excellent point about contracts. Eduardo is clearly, since the beginning of the movie, highly irrelevant to the creation and eventual explosion of Facebook. He insists on chasing people down in New York while Zuckerberg correctly understands that they should be in California. His contribution is minimal, and that he has no place as one of the leaders is clear.

How he is eventually eliminated, while perhaps unfriendly, is still clearly honest and correct. He willingly signs a contract, without so much as a quick glance at what it actually says. Zuckerberg might be considered dishonest if Eduardo was a helpless individual, but Eduardo had just graduated from Harvard with a degree in Economics, and has so far been prancing around claiming that he could and should handle the business side of Facebook – so he should certainly know better. Zuckerberg’s ‘deception’ could even be seen as a test of his friend’s capability as a businessman, a test that Eduardo fails miserably. If he was really as crucial to Facebook as he says he is, then it is clear that he should have the basic knowledge that it is crucial to read a contract before signing it (his father, a businessman, is in fact very disappointed in him).

All in all, I found The Social Network to be well worth watching. It is admirable even judged solely for its highlighting of intellectual property and contract issues; however, its great cinematic and entertainment value make it an excellent movie that I would highly recommend.

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