Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ethical and Legal Issues: Is Mark Zuckerberg a Thief? An Analysis of Copyright Infringement in the Fight for Facebook

Many have called Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg a genius. Forbes has recently called him “The World’s Youngest Billionare”; However, Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss call him a thief.  Here’s why…

In 2003, The Winklevosses (along with business partner/ Harvard classmate, Divya Narenda) approached Mark Zuckerberg about possibly becoming the programmer for their new website, Harvard Connection. Zuckerberg agreed to work on the project; however, this was not his intention. Instead, Zuckeberg ended up building upon the Winklevosses idea and creating While in the process of creating Facebook, Zuckerberg still kept in contact with the Winkelvosses via email and led them to believe that he was still working on their project. Upon finding out this information, and seeing how successful Facebook had become, Harvard Connection sued Zuckerberg for copyright infringement on intellectual property.  

Harvard Connection’s lawsuit against Facebook dealt with an issue of digital property. Digital Property refers to the idea that the law protects intangible or intellectual property. Intellectual property is about seeing who owns an idea. Digital Property protects intellectual property and intangible property through three basic mechanisms. The first is patent law, which is centered on inventions. The second mechanism is copyright, which addresses issues of expression, and the third is Trademark, which is concerned with the words or images used in the market.  The Winkelvosses case is an example of an issue of copyright infringement.

The 1976 Copyright Act states the owner of the copyright has exclusive rights to reproduction, to prepare derivate works, to perform the work publicly, and to distribution.  This act also states that copyright becomes property of the author as soon as the work is finished. The case between Harvard Connection and Facebook is difficult because it deals with stealing an idea. The work was not created already and there was no kind of protection put on the Winklevosses original idea.  The lawsuit would have most likely gone in favor of the Harvard Connection team if they had initially engaged in some kind of intellectual property protection method.

One of the most common methods of intellectual property protection is to take out a license on the idea. Licensing allows the buyer to use the product but restrict duplication or distribution. Since there was no actual product or buyer in this situation, licensing wouldn’t have been a possible intellectual property protection method for the Harvard Connection team. Instead, a more ideal protection method would have been to take a out a patent on the idea. A patent is issued to people who invent things and gives the inventor the right to stop anyone else from making, using or selling whatever is patented.  

Zuckerberg was smarter then the Harvard Connection team. He knew he had to make sure everyone knew Facebook was his idea. Upon creating Facebook he registered the domain name –, and creates a patent for the website. One of my favorite scenes from the film, The Social Network is when the Harvard Connection team sees up and running AND sees that Zuckerberg has essentially licensed the whole website.

Divya: What is that on the bottom of the page?
Cameron: A Mark Zuckerberg Production.

Divya: On the homepage?

Cameron: On every page.
Divya: Shit, I need a second to let the classiness waft over me.

In the end, Zuckerberg had to pay off the Winklevosses; however, I believe it was just to shut them up. The Harvard Connection team didn’t have the best case for copyright infringement. Marketing on the Internet has taught me that there are various things they initially should have done to prevent Zuckerberg from running with their idea and creating Facebook.  If they had put a patent on their idea, or actually created a prototype of the idea, the case for the origin on Facebook would have been much stronger and the Harvard Connection team might have now been the founders of Facebook.

the actual mark zuckerberg standing outside his billion dollar company, FACEBOOK