Lawyers Close High-Tech Range

By Rob Patterson

In my recent column on the film The Social Network, I neglected to address one major issue at its core: Who owns ideas as well as the creations that come from them? The issue of intellectual property in the Internet age is one that I’ve explored in this space before, and it remains a pressing and highly debatable matter.

And The Social Network by its very topic — the development and launching of an Internet phenomenon, and the lawsuits that followed in its wake — presents a quite powerful starting point for discussion. Or in the case that follows at least rumination.

The beginning of the process that led to Facebook was an act of imitation when Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg copied the site Hot or Not and applied it to his fellow students (though not for profit).

As presented in the film, the issue of how much Facebook originated from the work that Zuckerberg said he would do and what little he did for the Winklevoss twins and their partner Divya Narendra on their Harvard Connection site idea leaves great room for debate.

It later became a lawsuit that was settled with a confidential but rumored to be lucrative payment by Facebook. What was the real intellectual property that made Facebook such a success?

Was it the basic idea? Was it the functions and architecture of the site? Was it the coding that made it work? Was it some or all of the above, and in what proportions? There are no easy answers here.

The open and freewheeling exchange of not just information but creations and technological concepts occasioned by the World Wide Web and digital technology opened a Pandora’s box.

And the swirling tempest that has followed shows no signs of being slotted into a clear-cut notion of just who owns what, and to what degrees and proportions, in the foreseeable future.

Large corporate holders of copyrighted creative works such as film studios and record companies do seem to be winning the legal war to some degree, as witnessed by the recent closing of Limewire’s peer-to-peer file sharing operations.

Certainly in the realm of recorded music, the cat is out of the bag and won’t ever be fully recaptured.

And now more than one generation has to some degree had its notions on the monetary value of such works inalterably changed. There’s an interesting equation that has emerged between a devaluation of intellectual properties that are created by people of talent while at the same time the broader notion of open source access and the power of digital technology that allows anyone to become a creator.

Hence the issue becomes not just the idea but what is then done with it.

This is all sure to keep the legal profession busy for decades to come as well as lawmakers.

Being someone who makes my living in a creative field, I favor stringent notions of intellectual property, though individual or small groups of creators almost always lack the resources to defend their ownership and any monetary rewards.

It’s the corporate financers and distributors of creative properties that have that muscle.

They’ve had the upper hand on creators ever since royalty and nobility began sponsoring and supporting artists and composers centuries ago.

And ultimately, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Creative talents may be admired, but the vast majority of them don’t earn what they probably deserve for all the ways that the creative arts enhance society.

Art and commerce is one of the most complex and tricky equations in human monetary exchange. Karl Marx posited that if you want to change how people relate socially you have to first change how they relate economically.

In today’s world I don’t see any economic change that will bring the average artist, writer or musician to parity with business professionals even if the Internet has created a both powerful new tool for the individual to promote, market and monetize their work while at the same time opening the barn door to creative thievery.

In the end, perhaps, it all boils down to individual reliance and self-protection. And I hope that one result of this digital information revolution is that genuine creators have greater access to information about the importance of guarding and valuing what they create.

But maybe it’s simply human nature that as long as people have ideas and create, there will be those who buy, borrow and steal their ideas and creations.

And those who feel justly rewarded as well as others who feel ripped off and aggrieved. The issues and any answers are as complex as ever in our brave new technological world.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2011 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652