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A Social ‘Theft’work?

The Winklevoss twins represent two enemies that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made in the process of designing The Social Network (2010). Did Zuckerberg steal the inspiration for Facebook from the brothers’ idea for their website? The answer may hinge on the divisive issue of intellectual property.

The debate centers around the intrinsic right to own non-tangible, creative ideas. According to traditional patent, trademark, and copyright laws, intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets. Dissidents like Richard Stallman−a software freedom activist−argue that intellectual property creates a ‘bias’ toward property rights by confusing non-physical monopolies with ownership of physical things.

Regarding the creation of Facebook, courtroom and journalistic evidence shows no formal contract between Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses . . . only interesting and entertaining “dorm-room chit-chat.” A mere week after beginning what Zuckerberg referred to as ‘the dating site,’ he started working on a separate ‘Facebook’ project. Zuckerberg appears to have considered the two as competing for the same users’ attention, but also seems to have regarded them as different in key ways. While Zuckerberg does appear to have intentionally strung along the twins with the goal of making his own project the more successful launch, the Winklevosses $65 million lawsuit settlement seems more than fair−especially considering that the entire dispute took place over two months in 2004 and that in the years since, Zuckerberg has built Facebook into a massive global enterprise.

The Winklevoss twins are demanding that the case be reopened not for money but for honor. If there is no such thing as intellectual property rights, then there was nothing to steal and additional demands represent mere ego and greed. If intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets, then the battle between information highway robbery and issues of gentlemanly agreement should return to the top of Facebook’s News Feed.

Update: the Winklevoss suit against Facebook was thrown out by a federal judge in Boston as reported on July 22, 2011.