When we watch movies, we necessarily engage in at least some suspension of disbelief. That’s why we’re there. But when you’re an expert in a particular field, and Hollywood plays free and loose with the rules of that field–or occasionally gets them right!–you tend to notice. Physicists have been reviewing movies for their scientific accuracy for a while now. This is the first in a series of posts where we analyze the legal content of movies likely to appeal to comic book fans.
Tron: Legacy, sequel to the classic, raises a few interesting legal points. This is not intended to be a review of the movie but rather a quick brief on some of these issues. There are some spoilers though, so you have been warned.
I. What Tron: Legacy Gets Wrong
Well, maybe not wrong, but certainly unanswered and problematic. The biggest thing here is Quorra. Exactly what is she? This blog will consider the legal status of non-human intelligences in a later post, but assuming for now that the law is going to treat her as a human, how’s that going to work? She’s got no papers, no identity, no birth certificate, nothing. We’ve already talked at some length about the difficulties of creating a legal identity out of whole cloth. This will be made easier by Sam’s apparent wealth, but that might just wind up attracting unwanted attention. One can imagine the media frenzy: “Who’s this hot girl that the CEO of the biggest software company in the world is suddenly going out with?”
Whether or not Sam can get out of jail as quickly as he does is another question, particularly as there doesn’t seem to have been a lawyer involved. If he had been picked up for speeding or something like that, bail would probably be set pretty quickly and Alan would have been able to get him out with a minimum of fuss. But he’s probably being held on suspicion of serious industrial espionage. That isn’t the sort of charge which gets a bail hearing within an hour or two, and it’s entirely possible that the judge could have imposed further restrictions on Sam’s activities, like, say, not using computers for the duration of the trial.
Then there’s an issue which is averted by the movie but was raised as soon as it becomes apparent that Kevin Flynn is actually alive in the Grid: what’s going to happen to all that property if Flynn makes it out? This has also been discussed earlier, but the movie avoids it by apparently killing him off. Which resolves a surprising number of legal problems, as it turns out.
II. What Tron: Legacy Gets Right
Surprisingly enough for a movie of this sort, Tron: Legacy actually includes a fair amount of law… and gets it largely correct. For starters, when Kevin Flynn disappears, he is presumed missing for a while but eventually pronounced dead, and his shares of ENCOM stock pass to his son, Sam. That’s pretty much what would happen. Also, at the end of the movie Sam tells Alan that Alan will be the new chairman of the board. This is actually pretty realistic too: majority shareholders have significant authority over the corporations they own, and even plurality owners with 40-45% control, as Sam appears to, can throw their weight around pretty effectively, as minor shareholders frequently vote along with the major players. So those bits happen basically they way they would if the events in the movie were real.
There’s another thing though: whatever happened to the “Sam getting arrested” subplot? The movie basically drops it entirely, which is something of a plot hole. If you get arrested, especially for something as serious as industrial espionage, the one thing those charges do not do is magically disappear because you’re a main character. But that aside, it is entirely possible that the charges would wind up being dropped when Sam takes the reins of the company. He isn’t going to be all that excited about cooperating with an investigation, and he has enough control of the company to defeat any potential derivative suit. Because those are kind of boring details, one is tempted to give the filmmakers a pass on this one.
Note that this is a different question about whether or not he could get out on bail after one night. Even if no charges are likely to follow, it is still quite unlikely that someone under suspicion of an offense as serious as these would simply be able to get out on bail in the morning.
III. Unanswered Questions
Finally, there are some questions about which we can only speculate. First, who, if anyone, can be charged for a homicide offense related to Kevin Flynn’s death? The practical answer is probably “No one,” because Flynn was pronounced dead years before he actually died on the Grid, and given the stickiness of the issues involved, it is difficult to imagine a prosecuting attorney attempting to bring an indictment. But assuming for the moment that one did, how would that work? Well, for starters, it’s not entirely clear who is responsible for Flynn’s death. On the face of it, he sacrificed himself–effectively committing suicide–so that Sam and Quorra could escape. Hard to charge anyone with suicide if they pull it off. But if we assume for the moment that C.L.U. is responsible for Flynn’s death–not supported by the facts but an interesting hypothetical–who is responsible then? Are artificial intelligences indictable in court? Or are their creators responsible for any harm caused by their creators? The latter seems pretty likely, which would mean that Kevin would again be responsible for his own death, but if C.L.U. had killed Sam, Kevin could theoretically be charged with that.
Second, can anyone be charged for anything related to The Purge, where C.L.U. and his allies exterminated the ISOs? The question really turns on whether the court is going to treat truly emergent artificial intelligences as having the same rights as natural persons; I suspect that this is going to be a really tough sell, but again, we’ll be talking about legal treatment of non-human intelligences in a future post. The legal system is going to have to deal with this question eventually, but it’s entirely possible that this would be construed as a political question more than a legal one. Roe v. Wade is perhaps one of the closest analogous cases, but that case is controversial even amongst its supporters for answering a question that many legal observers argue should have been resolved by the political process. In that case, the Court was plausibly able to construe the case as a question of balancing constitutional rights of different people against each other. That’s something the Court does. But when we’re talking about entities that aren’t human at all, and whose mere existence does not implicate the rights of any particular human, one can imagine the Court being a lot less willing to jump in without some political cover, i.e. legislation or a constitutional amendment. In the absence of such law, it seems likely that a trial court would refuse to hear a case alleging the “murder” of an A.I. A more detailed analysis will have to wait for treatment in a dedicated post on the subject.
There are some good legal hooks in Tron: Legacy, and the creators actually get right about as much as they get wrong. Good for them. They also point at some fun possibilities which the legal system has not fully addressed. The movie isn’t likely to end up on anyone’s all time top ten, but it’s a decent way to spend two hours this holiday weekend.