Tron: Legacy

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.

IV. Conclusion

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.

21 responses to “Tron: Legacy

  1. Seems to me that the murder of ALL the isos is genocide, and could be tried in the International Criminal Court regardless of how the US defines AI’s. Which brings up another question: is the Grid under US jurisdiction? The servers hosting it are on US soil, but being a physically different world with different physical laws, does it have any claim to being a sovereign nation?

    • It isn’t murder if they aren’t people, and there can’t be genocide unless there’s homocide, i.e. the killing of a person. So asserting that the Purge constitutes genocide is begging the question.

      As to jurisdiction, it’s actually pretty clear: the Grid, like all virtual worlds, is under the jurisdiction of whatever government controls the real estate where the servers are located. There’s also some jurisdiction in places where the world has contact, e.g. the place from which a website etc. is accessed, but this is largely limited to saying “Follow our rules or don’t make your site available here.” Either way, the Grid, which is presumably running on a computer somewhere in California, is almost certainly subject to US jurisdiction. Adding facts like “physically different world” seems to be pushing the metaphysics of this thing a bit hard. As sci-fi stories go, it’s kind of a puff piece.

    • Were all the servers in Canada, reference might be made to the Persons Case as part of arguments made by pro- and anti-“AI=personhood” parties in any legal action.

      I doubt the Grid is solely American-hosted, so an international venue might yet be brought into play. But that’s for scriptwriters of any possible sequel film, novel, comics project, or videogame(among other possibilities) to address if they choose.

    • Even if it could claim to be a sovereign state (which frankly I think is unlikely in our social/legal/political atmosphere) that doesn’t mean a thing unless the U.S actually recognizes it as a state. If it’s entirely hosted on U.S soil that probably preempts claims of sovereignty. Of course it’s entirely possible that at some point in the future (probably at least a century or more) legal theorists and the public will begin to come around to the idea of treating domains in cyberspace as separate from the physical world but that just sounds shaky.

    • The closest analogy to your “sovereign nation on US soil” theory would be Indian reservations. The nations on those reservations are considered sovereign nations with rights to govern themselves. But (putting aside the reality of the fact that their rights get trampled by the federal and state governments all the time) they have those rights because they are recognized as separate nations in the constitution – a state of affairs not present for the Grid. And they are still subject to most of the same laws as the states in which the reservation is located, including murder (eg if a person commits murder on the Navajo reservation, that person would be tried in Arizona state court, not in Navajo tribal court). Basically, they can regulate traffic and zoning law, and distinctly small misdemeanors (eg petty theft on the Navajo reservation would be tried in tribal court, but only if the defendant is an Indian). So if an actual nation that the constitution recognizes doesn’t get to claim full sovereignty, there is no way that a virtual world would be able to.

  2. Perhaps Sam was released on bail because his lawyer pointed out that he was breaking into a building he more-or-less owned?

    Also, I missed a lot of the exposition dump in the middle of the film, but was it explained just what computer The Grid was running on? In the original film it was the Encom mainframe. Was this on a personal server in Kevin’s lab? Was it hidden in the background on some Encom servers and unknowingly ported to new hardware/software every few years? Or had it migrated to become distributed across the Internet?

    • My understanding of the security protocols at a building the size of Encom’s would be that Sam would never have been accused of industrial espionage on the night in question. The police were called due to a break in, and perhaps if they remembered Sam’s license from earlier in the night they might also add speeding and evading arrest. On top of that he has one count of illegal base jumping (missing a permit, endangering civilians, etc).

      Now, if as Eric notes it’s considered his building, he can’t be held for breaking and entering, so they really only have him on base jumping for sure. In this case, for a rich/celebrity such as himself, I can see him being released on no more than a phone call. Paris Hilton has been treated as tame in real life recently for drug charges in Las Vegas so I don’t think it’s a stretch to let Sam out for in the end what accounts to nothing more than illegal base jumping. My thoughts, anyway.

  3. I think that Clu was responsible for Kevin’s death. Provided that AIs are considered people and responsible for things at all (which I assume will be the topic of another column), Kevin died in an attempt to stop Clu from committing a host of crimes from homicide, to assault, to trying to take over the world. I’d think that would make Clu responsible. (If Clu survived, it’d be felony murder, anyway.) If Clu is considered a person, the one who created the person is not responsible for his actions any more than a parent is.

    You could argue that Clu only did what Kevin programmed him to, and is not responsible, in which case I’d call it an accidental death–it’s just that the length of time between the accident (programming Clu improperly) and the death is a while.

    I really didn’t buy the idea that programs can enter the real world, but assuming that they can, there’s no reason to believe that they’d come out indtinguishable from humans. Clu might manage it since he has Kevin’s data and would probably be in a duplicate of Kevin’s body, but Quorra is an unknown life form. A medical exam on her might discover interesting things, even if there’s nothing obvious like not having blood.

    I’m also not convinced that the programs are AIs (in the original, although Legacy seems to retcon it). The original Tron was more like, say, Bambi, the Lion King, or other Disney movies where the animals all think and talk yet the world is otherwise the real world. We’re simply supposed to believe that animals can think and forget that we’ve never seen them do so and they don’t have the brains for it. Tron, Clu, and the rest can think for the same reason that Bambi can think–because it’s a movie about talking programs, just like Bambi is about talking animals. They’re not AIs any more than Bambi is genetically engineered.

    • I agree. There is no evidence that CLU or TRON or any of the other programs in the Grid are intelligent. It is just that, to an observer inside the Grid with them, they interact with each other (and the observer) as if they were intelligent. The narration at the beginning of TRON: Legacy implies that all computers/computer networks have a similar structure (although the Grid is the only computer system that a human being can actually enter and observe, so that is an untested hypothesis).

      On the other hand, I do believe that Quorra and the other isos are AIs, and that is what made them so special (and that’s why CLU killed them — he knew that he could never control them).

  4. The question of responsibility concerning the C.L.U can also be applied to armed robots and the like.Though they have increasing use all over the world there doesn’t seem to be many decisions made about who would be liable for what a machine might do and even what kind of court would hear the case (if any).

  5. I presumed the arrest was more for the speeding/unauthorized jumping off building bit instead of the breaking & entering charge. He definitely had a history with the legal system, as he greets the tow lot attendant by name. He must have a more than competent attorney on call. With that kind of notoriety and that sort of money, I suspect in the real world, he would also have a paparazzi tail.

  6. I think its highly unlikely a court could hear anything regarding the Purge. I don’t think it would have subject matter jurisdiction. Even though the Grid was man made, its reality seems more akin to an alternate universe than a territory or state to be governed by a US court.

    • You might be surprised. Consider, for example, online games and taxation. Since there exists a virtual/real currency exchange rate (whether official or unofficial), it’s arguable that even pure online transactions (i.e. ones that do not involve exchanging virtual money for real) are actually taxable barter exchanges with a reportable fair market value. Real world governments are keenly interested in maintaining jurisdictions over virtual worlds, with taxation and censorship being the main motivations.

  7. My guess is that industrial espionage charges were never brought up. The only person who could establish that the person who jumped was the same who was in the server room is a security guard who appeared to be pretty convinced by the half-baked argument Sam makes. So, the only thing left is base jumping which I assume he could post bail on pretty quickly.

    On the other hand, being the majority shareholder at a firm (he can’t be sole owner or there would not be a board) is very different from just owning that firm’s property. Copying the OS online would be copyright infringement and contributory copyright infringement. I thought industrial espionage required dealing with trade secrets which would not apply after the software was released. So the timing would be key here. Did he release the software online before or after it was officially “distributed”. The breaking and entering charges hold, as well as unauthorized access to a computer system. There are a ton of charges that can come down on him. Of course, if he becomes CEO and has a friend become chairman, he can make it all go away. Though again, if he is majority shareholder, he can just threaten the board and CEO to fire them if they press charges.

  8. In regard to the arrest subplot. I believe Encom never filed a charge of Industrial espionage. As they are about to open the (I think it was the Tokyo) stock exchange the Chairman (?) quickly creates the cover story of Encom giving away the operating system as a gift. He presumably does this to avoid the scandal and negative publicity associated with the break in and theft. So Sam will face a charge for illegal base jumping, which I would imagie with his weath and Alan’s connections he would be out on bail fairly quickly. As for a possible charge of trespassing It would be tough to speculate given the vague nature of his status realative to the board of directors, as they were convened for the launch (I believe I recall Alan mentioning something to the effect of missing him at the board meetings. It has been a few weeks since I watched the film so I don’t exactly recall)

  9. JoeNotCharles: Seems to me that the murder of ALL the isos is genocide, and could be tried in the International Criminal Court regardless of how the US defines AI’s. Which brings up another question: is the Grid under US jurisdiction? The servers hosting it are on US soil, but being a physically different world with different physical laws, does it have any claim to being a sovereign nation?

    To be tried in the International Criminal Court, a sovereignty must first ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Currently, the United States has not ratified the Rome Statute and is not subject to the ICC’s jurisdiction. The same would go for The Grid, whether it is considered an independent sovereign or under the jurisdiction of the United States (going on the assumption that The Grid is located solely in Kevin Flynn’s server at the arcade).

    The potential legal status of A.I.s may very well become an issue in the near-future. Many States have passed laws that protect those that cannot protect themselves, whether it be an unborn child, a person under the age of 18, or a non-sentient creature. Illegally-conducted abortions, child abuse, and animal cruelty have become part of the legal landscape in the past 30 years. How will this change as A.I. technology develops and improves? Would a humanoid A.I. such as C-3P0 be treated differently than an A.I. such as R2-D2 simply because it speaks a human language, serves a higher purpose, or more closely resembles a human being? To what extent would an A.I. be considered an independent entity that can make decisions for itself? Compare this to a comatose person. Is the A.I.’s creator the same as an executor in a living will? As the laws currently stand right now in the U.S., CLU’s Purge cannot be legally defined as a genocide because there was no loss of sentient life, regardless of the number of dead ISOs.

    As for Kevin Flynn’s death, I would consider that a suicide. It is clear that he deleted The Grid from within the program and that included him as well. If his death had come at the hands of CLU or his army or Rinzler (it is clear this was not Tron because he had be re-programed by CLU to be Rinzler), it would still be a suicide because as the creator of CLU and the instructions given to CLU to make The Grid “perfect”, Kevin Flynn is vicariously liable for CLU’s actions. The same would apply had CLU managed to escape The Grid and enter our world and caused havoc.

    Now, as for Sam Flynn’s whole deal, I agree with what other people have said, so I won’t bother repeating.

  10. It could just be called criminal damge to the value of what the ISO are worth because they are not people or you could be looking at them as slaves as well.

  11. It’s a MOVIE guys, not a documentary.

  12. Re the status of virtual worlds, both real and fictional:

    Are there any cases related to crimes committed via shortwave radio? For example, what if someone harasses someone else in another state? The shared space of radio could be seen as an early ‘virtual world’.

    • Turns out that for all the noise geeks make about the significance of “virtual worlds”… the legal system really doesn’t care all that much. If you’re in California and you harass someone, via WoW, in New York, it’s no different than if you did it over the phone, over the radio, or wherever: harassment is harassment, and doing things on the Internet doesn’t add some amazing new jurisdictional wrinkle the law doesn’t know how to deal with.

      I’m not aware of any actual cases involving shortwave radio as such, but I don’t see any reason why there couldn’t be. I can, however, think of a few reasons why there wouldn’t be, namely that the potential damages are really low and finding the identity of the harasser is going to be tough. Way harder than if they’re doing it online, actually.

  13. A curious question, to me at least, is related to ability to physically enter the grid. To all appearences, the process involves being deconstructed (digitized) at the atomic or molecular level. Basically, you are turned into energy, then introduced into a VR world as an AI with your own personality/memories as the template. Exiting involves reconstucting a physical form for you.

    If the US government doesn’t recognize the grid as a physical place, then it can be argued (shown, even) that you have no physical existance for the duration. Are you legally dead at that time? Is entering the grid suicide? On return, since you are no longer dead, is it attempted suicide?

    Likewise, if the government doesn’t recognize AIs as people, then since it can be argued that you are an AI* for the duration of the time in the Grid, what (if any) legalities would be involved with returning?

    *Based on one definition of AI, an intelligent agent running on artificial (computer) hardware.

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