Last night I saw a film called Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a futuristic con man who breaks into peoples’ minds via their dreams, tricking them into revealing their secrets and forfeiting their own ideas. Working on a freelance basis, he makes his living stealing the intellectual property of various people of importance and then selling it to others. The film has been very successful, both critically and commercially, which is probably due in large part to the surrealist idiom in which it operates. But I think a lot of the ideas in the film translate well into real-life considerations. There are two techniques used by the thieves in the movie: that of “extraction” and that of “inception.” Extraction is the process mentioned above, where in the target’s subconscious is accessed through a process of shared dreaming. Once together in the dream, the target is somehow manipulated into giving up the desired information. The
physical manifestation of this within the dream is usually something along the lines of the target revealing the location of a safe, or the combination to a lock. As far as real-world parallels are concerned,
this is obviously intellectual property theft; the information being stolen is usually some form of idea, whether incipient or fully realized, and represents someone’s original work. That much is pretty
straightforward. The titular “inception,” on the other hand, does raise some interesting questions, or at least to me; maybe to someone who knows something about intellectual property law, there wouldn’t be many questions raised. But to me these are still novel ideas and unanswered questions. Inception is the process by which an idea is not stolen, but rather embedded within the target. For example, in the film, one
person wishes to implant in another the idea that the latter should dismantle their own industrial empire. The two men are competitors, and it would suit the former very well if the latter’s company should
disunify, weakening its own position. Apparently, though, this process is desperately tricky; the target’s subconscious nearly always recognizes the foreign idea, rejecting it like a transplanted organ.
To make it work, the idea must develop organically within the target’s mind; for this reason an idea can never be installed in its finalized form. Instead it must be seeded; only the initial spark is provided
and the rest is left to occur on its own. If successful, the target feels that the idea is truly his own. This is where it gets interesting to me, because I wonder how we deal with this phenomenon within our own intellectual property laws. It seems to me that nearly every idea could be connected, in some way, to
some earlier idea. Of course, many of these connections would be totally superficial. I’m sure many such connections have been contrived over the years, artificially linking one person’s idea to
another’s, with the intent of diverting some share of the credit, and the profit. And I’m guessing that’s where the courts come in: they decide which connections are legitimate and actionable, and which are
frivolous. But where do they draw the line on that distinction? How can they draw a line? That’s what really puzzles me. In the course of writing this post, I tried to think of the last truly, entirely original idea that I had. It wasn’t easy. In fact, near as I recall, the only ideas I’ve ever had that had no external influence or
inspiration were those that came to me while I was dreaming. Now of-course these ideas were, without exception, worthless. Embarrassingly worthless, to the extent that I don’t even want to give any examples.
But I think it’s telling that in the film, the only way to get the target to believe that an implanted idea is credibly original is to implant it while the target is dreaming. After all, this is probably the time when we’re most alone with our own thoughts. It makes me think of another movie I saw recently: The Social Network,
chronicling the origin and rise to international fame of the social networking site Facebook. The movie explores, among other things, the relationship between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and fellow
Harvard undergraduates Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. The Winklevoss brothers had enlisted Zuckerberg’s help in developing their own social networking site, Harvard Connection, several weeks prior to Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook, Inc. After offering some very preliminary help with the Harvard Connection, Zuckerberg disappeared completely, cutting off all contact with the Winklevoss brothers.
Several weeks later he registered the domain name http://www.thefacebook.com, and well, the rest is history. The Winklevosses later sued Zuckerberg in federal court, claiming that he stole their idea for the website. Zuckerberg did not deny his affiliation with the Winklevosses, nor his
awareness of the website they were working on. His defense didn’t seem concerned with repudiating the notion that Zuckerberg’s site was, at least in part, inspired by the Winklevosses’ website. Rather, speaking
to the opposing lawyers, Zuckerberg simply asserted that “if your clients were the inventors of Facebook, they’d have invented Facebook.” In other words, it doesn’t matter whether his site was
inspired by their site- his site is different, and it’s better. It’s his own. The Winklevosses were clever and they had a good idea, but Mr. Zuckerberg was cleverer, and his idea was better. And this again raises the question of where exactly we draw the line. How do we make the distinction between the theft of an idea and mere inspiration? And if we can define the difference, how do we prove that in any given case, the defendant was acting on one and not the other? Being a young and wholly inexperienced law student, I can’t begin to answer these questions. Yet as I watched the movie, I found myself siding instinctively with the Winklevoss brothers; I was certain that Mr. Zuckerberg did something wrong. I couldn’t give an intellectual reason as to why, but the whole situation seemed wrong: it felt unfair. This may have to do with the actor’s portrayal of Mr. Zuckerberg, or the way he was portrayed within the writing. But I had the unshakeable feeling that the Winklevoss brothers were wronged, and that it would be decidedly unfair if they were to go uncompensated. Of course, my legal intuitions don’t carry any weight, which is probably
good since they’re unlikely to be very accurate. But I wrote this blog post, along with the other, with the hopes of highlighting the human presence inherent in the courtroom, something that I felt was a
central theme in both Professor Rosenbaum’s courses and his books. The jurists and legislators of our country try to maintain the law as a rigid and purely academic entity, but the human element always creeps
in. No matter how we structure the legal process, it seems inevitable that people’s feelings, emotions, and intuitions will assert themselves. Maybe not explicitly; more often than not they probably go
unacknowledged. But I do believe they play a significant role nonetheless. Professor Rosenbaum argued throughout the semester that in general, there’s far too little humanity in the courtroom. It’s a difficult subject, but overall I tend to agree. Either way, I think it makes for a good discussion.