Letter from the Editor

Whom Should We Reward?

Innovations in technology and science have many authors, although only a few are recognized.

  • This letter appeared in the September/October 2007 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • August 15, 2007

If you asked Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twin brothers who cofounded ConnectU, whether Mark ­Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, deserved to be one of this year’s TR35, they’d say no.

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher

We named Zuckerberg one of 2007’s 35 leading innovators under the age of 35 because Facebook is the best of the social-networking websites, and social networking is the fastest-growing phenomenon on the Internet. As of July 2007, 30 million people had registered with Facebook. An older social network, MySpace, has more than 100 million people registered, but Facebook is cooler. Its design (for which Zuckerberg is responsible) is more elegant and functional, and its features are more useful and more fun. To the young and hip, Facebook appears to enjoy the future’s blessing, but MySpace already looks dated and ugly.

This perceived coolness has real value, or soon will. Facebook is a private company, and its value is still notional, but last year Zuckerberg was widely reported to have declined an offer of $1 billion from Yahoo. When Facebook enjoys its “liquidity event” (in the form of either acquisition or an initial public offering of stock), Mark Zuckerberg, who is 23, will be very rich.

But the Winklevoss brothers say that Facebook’s founder stole the idea of the site from them. In a suit that dates back to 2004, the ConnectU founders accuse ­Zuckerberg of lifting their source code and business plan.

In 2002, when the Winklevoss brothers and Divya ­Narendra, another founder, were juniors at Harvard, they conceived what they initially called the Harvard Connection, a social network for the college. In November 2003, they asked Zuckerberg to develop the software, promising to compensate him later if the site prospered. Zuckerberg left the project in February 2004, a month after registering the domain name thefacebook.com. By the end of February, Zuckerberg’s new site, also a social network for the Harvard community, had registered half the college’s undergraduates. By April, the Facebook had expanded to other Ivy League schools. Later, it began to serve more universities, then high schools, then businesses, and eventually the broader public. By contrast, ConnectU never really got started. It didn’t launch until May 2004; overshadowed by what soon became simply Facebook, today it boasts no more than 70,000 users.

Those bare but evocative facts are all that is undisputed in the case. The Winklevosses say their business plan always described how the Harvard Connection would grow beyond the college and become ConnectU–just as Harvard’s “the Facebook” became the world’s Facebook. For his part, Zuckerberg says he never imagined that his unpaid arrangement was contractually binding.

The parties declined to be interviewed for this column. But I have no doubt that both the Winklevoss brothers and Zuckerberg are sincere in their expressions of outraged rectitude (although I am sure the twins’ grief could be diminished by a large settlement). Both parties believe they created the idea of a well-made social network, constructed to please the tastes of clever college kids.

But in every case where a new technology or scientific idea is emerging, there will be many people working on it, and nearly as many claims to have originated it.

Some have argued, for example, that James ­Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA with Francis Crick, never properly acknowledged his inspiration for the idea that that structure was a double helix. Famously, ­Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London showed Watson research that belonged to Rosalind Franklin, a chemist and crystallographer then working at King’s, without her knowledge or permission. According to ­Watson, whose account can be found in this month’s essay (see “Letter to a Young Scientist”), the x-ray photograph of DNA he saw “displayed unequivocally the large cross-shaped diffraction pattern to be expected from a helical molecule.” That information, in part, led to the Nobel Prize that ­Watson shared with Crick and Wilkins in 1962.

In his essay, Watson discharges his debt to Franklin, writing that “we would not have found the DNA structure without knowledge of x-ray results from King’s.” He argues, however, that scientific and technological innovation occurs when competitive researchers and innovators, all avid for success, confront a problem separately. Each failure or advance contributes to the larger project. He’s right, but it is a melancholy fact that while many may help develop a bright idea, our prizes, copyrights, patents, and financial markets recognize just a few.

Watson and Crick would not have discovered the structure of DNA without Franklin. Without ConnectU, Facebook almost certainly would not look as it does. In hindsight, and after rancorous controversy, we have come to better understand the contributions of Franklin and others at King’s. In the case of Facebook, will a lawsuit clarify what is confused? Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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