Whilst reading through Tech Crunch this morning, I was taken by one of their articles on Facebook’s attempt to patent the process through which they translated their site. Facebook has harnessed the power of its massive user-base to create a simple system whereby users would translate particular sentences, and then those translations were collectively voted on by other users to find the most suitable one. The whole process works in a very similar way to Digg or other social bookmarking sites in that users can either vote up or vote down particular translations. Using this process, Facebook was able to translate its site into over 60 languages with an incredibly quick turnaround – and now it wants to patent the process by which it achieved this.
There is no doubt that Facebook profited immensely from the good-will of its users, but now it wants to profit merely from the idea of using people in this manner. The problem that I have with this is that it really seems to go against many of the ideals and ethics behind user-created content. Facebook certainly profits from the efforts of millions of volunteers – they would have saved millions of dollars and months, if not years, of development time by doing this. But now they want to stop anybody else from translating text – in a social network context – unless, of course, they pay Facebook a nice hefty fee.
The problem ethically is two-fold. First of all, this is basically like wanting to profit from the concept of democracy. It would be fair enough for Facebook to own the exact code that was developed for their system, but to seek to own such a generalised concept as collaborative effort? It really does puzzle me how Facebook figured they would get away from this attempt, not just from a legal point of view but also from a credibility standpoint.
Secondly, systems such as this have been used exactly for this purpose long before Facebook ever thought to harness it. There are many examples of this general concept in use, and the Tech Crunch article linked above provides some examples of such (and there are many more in the comments beneath their article). So, they were by no means the first company to conceive of this idea, even from a purely social networking perspective.
Although it is true that Facebook will need to find additional ways to monetise their business, doing so through such underhanded methods is in my opinion not a good path to go down. This latest patent spotlight also brings up bigger issues about the control that large corporations may have over very pivotal aspects of our lives and society in the future.
In the end, almost every large corporation exists solely for bottom-line profit – and patents play a very central role in generating these profits over long periods of time. However, what we must ensure is that we do not allow corporate mindsets to overcome our social sense of responsibility and greater good. We must ensure that our commercial ethics come from a sense of collective improvement rather than individualised profit. This does not mean that corporations cannot profit from their ideas, but it does mean that there needs to be a more general understanding of what people are attempting to patent and how such patents might affect the use of new technologies that could have a positive impact on society as a whole.
Human innovation depends largely on ideas bouncing back and forth between people, being improved and adapted in their use. The massive success of open-source projects around the world highlights the great power that can arise from collective effort. We should be looking to improve society as a whole, not just our own bottom-line. As we move forwards into this new golden-age of technological advancement, we have to make sure that the benefits of our progress will not be held back and delayed merely so that a small handful of people can profit because they hold the keys to the castle.