Intellectual Property: The Real “Final Game” in Westworld

Kate Garber

The date for Westworld Season 3 has finally dropped—March 15, 2020. After first watching Season 1, I had a fear that Westworld would either (a) conclude with something obvious like a bad episode of Black Mirror, or (b) come together about as well as Lost did. I want to assure you that neither of these happened. Season 2 is both brilliant and satisfying.

In television, intellectual property is periodically the subject of an episode or even a show (e.g., the patents in Orphan Black). Sometimes it is referred to off-handedly, but often incorrectly (e.g., “a ‘Tur-turkey-key’—copyright pending”). Westworld is a rare case where intellectual property is a subtle underlying theme and where, whether intentionally or not, each passing reference holds real meaning.

* The following is intended for those who are already caught up. It is full of spoilers. *

Westworld’s plot is driven by several puzzles, which both viewers and characters are trying to figure out. One of these is the question: What is the real “end goal” of the Westworld park? It is owned by a huge corporation (Delos) and seems like it could be a pretty lucrative business on its own. On the other hand, senior Delos employees regularly refer to the fact that the real value is not in the park itself.

CHARLOTTE: Let me remind you of something. This place, the people who work here, are nothing. Our interest in this place is entirely in the intellectual property—the code.

THERESA: The hosts’ minds, the story lines.

CHARLOTTE: I don’t give a rat’s ass about the hosts. It’s our little research project that Delos cares about. That’s where the real value is.

(Season 1, Episode 7)

THERESA: Ford is done, Bernard. The Board has indulged him for long enough, he is done. The corporation was concerned he’d destroy all of the park’s IP on his way out the door.

BERNARD: You think I would have let him destroy all of the hosts, all of our work?

THERESA: There is far more at stake here than the hosts’ profiles. Do you really think the corporation’s interests here are tourists playing cowboy?

(Season 1, Episode 7)

When Season 2 begins, we have encountered only vague references to the fact that there is some unnamed “intellectual property” that is so valuable that the regular workings of this unprecedented park pale in comparison. My original guess was that there must be some “code” for an artificial intelligence that has been learning and evolving over the past 35 years. In the alternative, I thought they may be referring to a trove of data that they’ve been gathering about the guests, to be used for some sort of marketing purpose. But considering the use of “intellectual property” to describe the asset, it seems like either (a) the answer must be closer to an artificial intelligence than to raw data, or (b) we shouldn’t read too much into the terminology—everyone is just colloquially saying “IP.”

Early on in Season 2, we see a flashback discussion between young William and his father-in-law, James Delos. William is trying to convince Delos that Westworld was a great investment for their company:

You’re right, this place is a fantasy. Nothing here is real. Except one thing: the guests. Half of your marketing budget goes to trying to figure out what people want, because they don’t know. But here they’re free. Nobody’s watching; nobody’s judging. At least, that’s what we tell them. This is the only place in the world where you get to see people for who they really are. And if you don’t see the business in that, then you’re not the businessman I thought you were.

(Season 2, Episode 2)

At this point, the answer seems to have been revealed: Westworld is the most advanced, sneaky data collector there’s ever been; it is valuable because of its potential to make all other marketing devices seem archaic. This would be a pretty straightforward plotline, and I’d say, “Huh, okay, that was kind of fun.” I’d also be frustrated that the references to intellectual property were minimally significant, as it would only show that some people think of consumer data as IP.

Then the twist. We discover that in present-day Westworld, the end goal has evolved. Westworld has been collecting data, yes, but no longer just for advertising—rather, they are secretly acquiring and recreating their guests’ personalities, or consciousnesses, in digital form. Once the technology is perfected, Delos will be able to sell its guests immortality. Human personhood preserved in an artificial replication of a human body. Significantly, what they are devoted to preserving throughout the show is not only the underlying code that will make this process possible; the bulk of the “intellectual property” they have been referring to is the data itself.

Why is this significant? I found that the most frightening part of Westworld was recognizing that in Season 3, Delos will inevitably be able to rewrite the law through its brazen—but virtually unpunishable—misdeeds. (Could society really enjoin the means of its own immortality?) Its employees have been referring to this data as intellectual property, which would mean that the data belongs to the corporation. However, data that is collected under false pretenses without consent would not belong to the corporation.

In real life in the U.S., we do not own our personal data; and those who invest in collecting our personal data under some cover of consent, do own that data in many ways. The implications of Westworld’s scenario compound this already questionable allocation of right. By compiling personal data in such a sophisticated way, Delos will soon own data-made replications of the person whose data they gathered. They have cleverly started to legitimize their project along the way by using “intellectual property” as the assumed legal framework for what they have acquired. Whereas their computer code and various processes would naturally be included in a set of intellectual property rights that are well defined, laws related to data are still in flux. It is not yet clear where they will settle within statutory and common law. This fantastical plot is important to watch because, even if this particular extreme scenario (immortality) never becomes a reality, it provides an example of what may happen when those who “own” our data are one step ahead of the legal system. If we aren’t prepared, an innovative form of asset may slip into a system of legal protections that cannot properly control it.

All of this is good and scary, and is a much more sophisticated version of a data-driven future than similar shows have produced. But the show proves that it exists on a higher level through one other IP-related reference.

Maeve and a few fellow hosts, along with Lee (the human in charge of characters and storylines in the park), enter Shogun World while traveling to find Maeve’s daughter. They quickly recognize that the events in this area of the park are nearly identical to what they had experienced, and the characters are eerily like themselves; it is pretty much Westworld in different cultural dressing.

ANGELA: I’ll be damned. It’s us.

LEE: Yes, fine. I may have cribbed a little bit from Westworld. Well, you try writing 300 stories in three weeks.

(Season 2, Episode 5)

Things get messy, and the hosts from Westworld are concurrently trying to help Maeve’s counterpart and to quickly get back to their journey.

LEE: Just try and reign it in a bit, will you. The narrative bones of this place are just like Westworld. Hospitality is foreplay to a new quest; but in this world, if you don’t hear them out you’ve dishonored them—sometimes homicidally so.

MAEVE: Fine, we’ll listen. But then we go and find my daughter. And for the record, it’s not just the narrative bones that are identical. You’ve plagiarized our stories, our identities.

(Season 2, Episode 5)

At this point Maeve already understands that Delos employees technically created the hosts, their personalities, and their stories. When she tells Lee that he plagiarized these things, it is a fundamental act of defiance—she is claiming her personhood in a way that erases the significance of any outside programming. It is also in stark contrast with Delos’s approach to personhood (of both hosts and humans) as a thing to be owned, because plagiarism is not a legal claim. Maeve is not treating her personhood as an asset to be bargained with; she simply demands that it be recognized

I don’t make any normative claims about this; each viewer will find their own meaning. One could say that this shows the hosts are better than humans because they are less driven by capitalistic greed; or, on the other hand, that it is an example of the effects of systematic oppression. It’s possible that the writers never thought about any of this, but a well-crafted work of art often reveals its depths in unanticipated ways. Either way, we can be watching for further IP-related developments soon enough.