What’s the Big Idea? – Facebook History & The Law

When it comes to legally protecting one’s ideas with regard to business, things often get a little hairy.

As mentioned in one of my prior blogs, a person cannot technically legally protect their original idea by way of trademark or other means. Instead, they can only lay legal claim to their version of said idea. Imagine, if you will, if the inventor of the wheel made it legally prohibited for another person to create and manufacture a similar circular object.

Once again, I’d like to revisit the topic of Facebook and the recent film, The Social Network. In The Social Network, the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was sued by two fellow Harvard students, the Winklevoss twins, who claimed that the basis for Facebook stemmed from their idea, which they in turn shared with Zuckerberg. They shared said idea with an alleged oral contract and understanding that Zuckerberg would use his vast computer skills to help build and cultivate a social networking site. To their chagrin, however, Zuckerberg allegedly took the basis of their idea and created his own version of a social networking site, which ultimately became Facebook. The Winklevoss twins then sued Zuckerberg a few years later and received a reported $65 million settlement.

From a legal standpoint, most experts would say that Zuckerberg didn’t break any intellectual property laws. He may not have been very honorable in dealing with his fellow Harvard entrepreneurs, but from a technical standpoint, he arguably broke no laws.

From a prospective juror’s viewpoint, however, it may have appeared as though he blatantly stole the social networking site from the Winklevoss brothers. Intellectual property law can be quite verbose and confusing. It was allegedly feared by Zuckerberg’s legal team that he would come across as an arrogant “punk” and a none the wiser jury would possibly award the prosecution a lot more money that was ultimately settled for.

It cannot be legally determined that Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from others because the product in which he produced was very different than what was proposed to him originally by the Winklevoss brothers. Their idea centered around a networking site for Harvard alumni, with idea of possibly expanding to other elite universities. It was more of a private “elitist” type medium. Zuckerberg, however, took their idea, stripped it down and used bits and pieces of it, from which he created “The Facebook,” that was intended for a more global audience.

As said earlier, one can only lay claim to their unique version of an idea, not someone else’s take or version of it. MySpace is similar to Facebook, but has specific differences. Apple computers are similar to “PC’s” but have their own unique features and functions. Iconic cartoons from the 1980’s such as The Transformers and Gobots had very similar qualities, yet maintained their own specific identities.

What makes a product, slogan, or entity “click” with people is an intangible quality that can’t be harnessed. If somebody comes up with an idea that flops and then another person comes along and puts out their version of said idea and strikes gold, the initial “innovator” typically has no legal recourse.

Years ago, there was a man who attempted to sue Sylvester Stallone, claiming he lifted his idea for what ultimately became “Rocky IV” His lawsuit had no standing because Stallone created his own unique and specific version of an “underdog” story, using original character names, story premise, etc. If Stallone took another person’s story and blindly copied it and made a movie about it, that in of itself would have grounds for an intellectual property law suit. This, however, simply was not the case and, Rocky’s unblemished reputation lives on in all of our hearts.