Harvard's Larry Lessig on why 'Social Network' gets the Internet wrong

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Harvard's Larry Lessig on why 'Social Network' gets the Internet wrong

Tue Oct 12, 2010 @ 05:06PM PST

By Matthew Belloni

Like almost every person with access to the Internet, Harvard law professor and digital rights advocate Lawrence Lessig has weighed in with his review of "The Social Network." Lessig, a big Aaron Sorkin fan from his "West Wing" days, enjoyed the film, but...but...

  • Lessig,lawrence But as a story about Facebook, it is deeply, deeply flawed. As I watched the film, and considered what it missed, it struck me that there was more than a hint of self-congratulatory contempt in the motives behind how this story was told. Imagine a jester from King George III’s court, charged in 1790 with writing a comedy about the new American Republic. That comedy would show the new Republic through the eyes of the old. It would dress up the story with familiar figures—an aristocracy, or a wannabe aristocracy, with grand estates, but none remotely as grand as in England. The message would be, “Fear not, there’s no reason to go. The new world is silly at best, deeply degenerate, at worst.”

Lessig thinks the biggest problem with the film is that it fails to propely credit the Internet itself as the real hero in the story. Unlike successful businessmen of yore, who required cumbersome (and often expensive) manufacturer or distributor partners, Mark Zuckerberg was able to create Facebook without permission from anyone. He just needed $1,000 from his buddy and the enabling power of the Web.

  • The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing. Zuckerberg didn’t invent that platform. He was a hacker (a term of praise) who built for it. And as much as Zuckerberg deserves endless respect from every decent soul for his success, the real hero in this story doesn’t even get a credit. It’s something Sorkin doesn’t even notice. 

Finally, Lessig uses the review to lobby for net neutrality—and as a chance to rail against the legal system for placing litigation burdens on innovators. 

  • Did Zuckerberg breach his contract? Maybe, for which the damages are more like $650, not $65 million. Did he steal a trade secret? Absolutely not. Did he steal any other “property”? Absolutely not—the code for Facebook was his, and the “idea” of a social network is not a patent. It wasn’t justice that gave the twins $65 million; it was the fear of a random and inefficient system of law. That system is a tax on innovation and creativity. That tax is the real villain here, not the innovator it burdened.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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