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The Social Network: copyright breach or betrayal?

Published on 06 November 2010
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.’

If you haven’t watched the movie, I won’t be spoiling it by saying who the enemies are, even though there’s much more to the movie. And in that case, you should stop reading this blog.


But if you’ve watched the movie, I’m pretty sure it made you reflect on a few things. Here’s what got me thinking…

A lesson in copyright

Fellow classmates Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra (yes, it was the same actor playing both roles) sue Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg for stealing their ideas to set up the original version of Facebook.

The legal battle ended in settlement in 2008. But although Zuckerberg is almost depicted as the bad guy, the movie’s ending suggests an undeserving win for the Winklevoss twins who managed to extract a huge sum of money out of the pockets of the guy who might not have infringed copyright laws at all.

Let’s go back to theory… 

Citing the United States Code, Title 17 § 102(b) is clear:

‘In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.’

Now let’s pick up just two cases which expound on this provision.

‘The most fundamental axiom of copyright law is that no author may copyright his ideas or the facts he narrates.’ (Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.,Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 344-45, 1991)

The ownership rights safeguarded by the Act are not absolute, but are ‘limited in that a copyright does not secure an exclusive right to the use of facts, ideas, or other knowledge.’ (Bond v. Blum, 317 F.3d 385, Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, 2003)

So how do we reconcile this fundamental axiom with the fact that the settlement won the twins $65 million? At the least, it adds to the misconception which entertains the minds of many, that ideas might be copyrighted. That if I come up with a concept, divulge it to you, and you gather enough resources and actuate my concept, I can later sue you for copyright and probably manage to win enough money to make me quit working for the next decade. While this is certainly very attractive, it’s simply not what the law is safeguarding.

This leaves us with a story about betrayal. An agreement gone wrong. Harvard colleagues in a bid to win the final race. And more than just a pinch of luck.

What the movie does very well is narrate how Facebook originated. It exposes the lawsuits that surrounded Facebook. And it talks about what made Facebook morph into the social networking site it is today.

But the movie leaves one thing unclear: Zuckerberg’s statement. ‘A guy who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.’ Oh, I thought Zuckerberg was accused of stealing an idea… Why did the movie script suddenly hint that Zuckerberg might have copied something more than an idea?  Did Zuckerberg steal the ConnectU idea, or did he steal the programming code itself? If he stole the latter, the fine line between copyright infringement and non-infringement is squarely accentuated.

With such a statement thrown in mid-storyline, one cannot be blamed for feeling at a loss as to why exactly did the twins bag $65 million. Or for feeling at a loss as to who was in the right and who was in the wrong.

Whether its copyright infringement, an imperfect legal system, or bad publicity, one thing is certain: the system is no less knotty than Facebook’s history itself.

What’s your take on The Social Network? Anything that struck you in particular? Post your comments below.

3 replies
  1. Stephanie Borg Psaila
    Stephanie Borg Psaila says:

    Can’t agree more! What you say about staying ahead of the competition with new ideas sounds like a great formula for success. I wonder what the turning point was for businesses like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn though. There are hundreds of new start-up every week, some of them based on very creative, new ideas. Yet, very few of them make it big.

  2. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Facebook and most other businesses take ideas and evolve the concepts into products that appeal to the mass markets for todays society. This is just part of business and marketing – as it has always been.

    Ideas cannot be copyrighted, as they are just ideas. When ideas are turned into reality a business is created. This model will always be copied – it’s businesses that stay ahead of the competition that forge ahead. The emulators just play catch up; as is seen by the likes of twitter, facebook, linkedin, etc. There are many that try to follow – but do not succeed – original thought is needed, which can be inspired by those that have been at the top of the game before.

  3. Sidra Jabeen
    Sidra Jabeen says:

    Stealing and idea is not a problem in my opinion .. because anybody can think creative or sometimes someone can better portray the idea than the thinker

    P.S. I loved the movie and the story aswell


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