A guy who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.
This is a line from The Social Network movie, Mark Zuckerberg’s retort on the allegation that he stole the idea for Facebook.
The lawsuit by the Winklevoss brothers* against Mark is the subplot from the Social Network movie, providing a comical, if not contrasting background to the major internal struggles in the early days of Facebook. The scenes of the idea theft lawsuit are interwoven with the main narrative through flashbacks – summarily telling a story about a nimble, brilliant but rather nasty programmer who outrun the wealthy Goliathesque twin with an over-reliance on rules of conduct. This movie does not paint Mr. Zuckerberg in an especially unflattering light (some damning report about their conflict are actually missing from the movie), but it does raise the question on the uniqueness of a software, and how much can they borrow from one another’s playbook. This fits in nicely as a part of a broader debate on whether or not software should be patentable at all, but for the sake of brevity this essay will only discuss the arguments as spoken by the fictional Mark Zuckerberg in the movie.
The first argument by Mark was the line as quoted in the beginning of the movie: a guy who makes a nice chair does not owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair. However, using the same analogy, certain chair designs which fulfill several criteria may be protected by intellectual property law. A generic chair design is generally considered as public domain, and therefore cannot qualify for protection, therefore, it’s not incorrect to say that a chair designer is not liable to pay for the generic concept of chairs. But the intention of intellectual property law is to prevent a design from being ripped off by others – so the guy who made a nice chair which strongly resembles another nice chair is bound to be called a copycat or ripoff – and probably get embroiled in a lawsuit.
The second argument was the fictional Mark Zuckerberg’s quip that says if the Winklevosses have invented Facebook, they would have invented Facebook. Facebook might be different than the site that the Winklevosses had envisioned as HarvardConnection, but the former perceivably draws important aspects from the latter. Zuckerberg had collected photographs from all Harvard freshmen before on some prank project called FaceMash, but he had not thought about college freshmen directory being a social network before his encounter with the Winklevosses without which there’s small chance the idea will occur to him. Moreover, the early success of Facebook is attributed to its strengths within the college circles and exclusivity pertaining to university networks – something which was a central idea of HarvardConnection. Facebook’s inception is undoubtedly linked to that of the twin rower’s idea.
Certainly Zuckerberg had done things in a different way on the idea development department – he genuinely believed in the idea, and he worked really hard for it – even so far as to deliberately slowing down his rival project by paying lip service to their project. In the era of online competition where the product can be easily copied, he gave himself a critical advantage of brand recognition by being the pioneer. By contrast, the twins have had two programmers working on this idea for them before Zuckerberg was invited – neither have succeeded in creating a working solution. To the Winklevosses this was just another project to be managed; the only fault to their bureaucratic corporate instincts was the fact that they did not have a legal contract signed. Facebook has made several distinctive technology-oriented choices in its development that contributed heavily to their current success, namely opening its platform to third party developers and embracing the dynamic web interface. With his entrepreneurial spirit, technology savvy and some shrewd financial advice from Shawn Parker, Zuckerberg himself proved to be the most important factor to Facebook’s success.
Creativity and ideas may provide the initial spark for a product, but its development and execution form a large part of what makes it successful – if not the largest part in software development contexts. Unlike a physical products whose qualities are visible, software embodies a service that can easily be offered by other similar software. Service, by its very definition, is uniquely tied to its subject and therefore does not require any legal protection from competitors. In the long run, software patents may become irrelevant if not hampering development by giving less incentive to innovate and improve development.
(* their being a twin olympic rower is enough reason for me to pick their picture as the essay’s illustration 😛