Monday, February 27, 2012

Social implications of social network

Managed to squeeze in some time to enjoy this show. Zuckerberg comes off as mean, petty and vindictive and in some ways I probably would have been disappointed if he hadn’t been. After all, you don’t get to be great by playing nice.

To me, the central issue in the movie was whether Zuckerberg stole an idea. Without a doubt he did - he said so as much (in so far as the movie reflected reality) - “I didn’t use any of the code!” Well, no - he was hired to write the code but ran off with the idea instead.

Is it illegal to steal an idea? No.  Is it ethical? In social sciences especially at the PhD level where anyone with an idea and a computer can now generate a thesis it is not unusual to see players in the fields trade accusations of stealing ideas. Likewise, any good coder can take an idea and turn it into a product just as any good graduate student or researcher can take an idea and turn it into a research paper. A person with an idea but without the skills flails just as much as a person with the skills but without the idea. Moreover, it isn’t a sure thing that a person with both skills and idea (stolen or otherwise) can generate a good or commercially or academically successful product.

Facebook was and perhaps still is not guaranteed to be a commercial success although it has without doubt become an investment success for the founders and early believers. In this movie I saw how ideas can become like a lottery for those with both skills and idea just as skilled inventors with patents can turn the intellectual property and legal system into a lottery by generating patents either to see if anything sticks or to be able sue someone for patent violation.

My discomfort lies in the appearance to me that there is very little to distinguish between what Zuckerberg did to the many patents out there that can be modified upon and turned into successful products. For instance, someone could look at the different patents out there and possibly turn one of the languishing ones into a better product. Even though he did not use any of the elements in the patent he could still be liable for patent infringement. Note that this isn’t the same as independent inventions. It could be something like an R&D race or leapfrogging of technology or even a simple improvement. For instance, could James Watt today have improved on the existing steam engine and not run afoul of IP laws?

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