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[personal profile] brainwane
I saw Antitrust on an airplane in the summer of 2001. I didn't leave with a high opinion of it; it seemed campy fun.

I found a used DVD at a local thrift shop last weekend, so last night I watched it with my spouse.

It actually holds up better than I predicted on a technobabble level! We freeze-framed a lot and marvelled at how reasonable (mostly) all the command-line stuff was. And as mainstream fiction movies go, I think there still hasn't been a movie that takes the conflict between proprietary and open source software more seriously than Antitrust (I'd welcome corrections on this point).

Milo Hoffman is a brilliant young software engineer who's just graduated from Stanford. He and some buddies are about to start a media platform startup -- but zillionaire founder Gary Winston personally recruits him to work at NURV on Synapse, an ambitious media convergence thing that will allow anyone to transmit text, audio, or video to any other device via NURV's satellite network. Milo's friend Teddy turns down the offer -- knowledge belongs to the human race, so he's dedicated to only writing open source code. Despite argument from Teddy, and from a Department of Justice dude who wants Milo to help with the antitrust case against NURV instead, Milo heads off to Portland to hack on Synapse. But Milo starts to get suspicious -- why does he sometimes get CD-ROMs of super useful code to integrate into the project, often directly from Gary, but no hint of who wrote it? And when Teddy is murdered, why is there a bit of fiber optic fluff at the murder scene?

It's like The Firm or The Pelican Brief, but at a software company. Milo finds that people and places he thought he could trust (such as his girlfriend and the DoJ guy) are actually paid agents of NURV, and uncovers the shocking truth that NURV is spying on talented programmers, OCR'ing their work and taking it, then murdering them so they can't compete with NURV's business. Despite various betrayals and setbacks, he eventually succeeds in finishing Synapse and using it to transmit proof of Winston's and NURV's crimes to every TV, radio, cell phone, and computer in the world -- and to transmit the source code to Synapse as well. And anyone can get a copy of the code from the website of the startup his college buddies founded -- the feds arrest Winston and his associates, as Milo and his pals in a garage bask in their new fame.

When I saw it in 2001, I laughed at "they don't know the meaning of open source" and at the kryptonite sesame seeds. I rolled my eyes in various ways and blogged something like "the only movie whose denouement could be replaced with a post on Slashdot". It's a thriller with reasonable pacing but that's not my favorite genre of movie, even if the subject matter is stuff I care about.

So, some things are still not great about this movie. The women are kind of cardboard cutouts, although I think Rachael Leigh Cook does well with what she's given, and I don't think Ryan Philippe demonstrates much range. There are some really hard-to-tell-apart twentysomething white guys who are playing different characters and I wish one of them at least had a different hairstyle or hair color or something? There's a scene where Winston is giving an inspirational sort of "we need to meet this deadline and you're the ones who can do it" talk and it just does not seem like a talk that would cause the standing-and-cheering reaction we see.

But perhaps the most unrealistic thing for me in Antitrust is a conversation early on, where Gary's recruiting Milo, and Milo says he and his friends want to release all their code as open source, and their business would just charge for support. And Gary says, basically, well, would you even give it away to companies like his that would reuse and resell it? "It's just a matter of time before someone borrows your technology, improves it and makes a billion dollars on it." Which is where anyone who is super into open source, like Milo, would say, "well that's why we're using the GPL". I gave a talk at FOSDEM last year based on an essay I wrote for Crooked Timber where I explained:

People who don’t like copyleft licenses use phrases like “viral” and “restrictive” and “commie” when muttering darkly about them. And copyleft licenses do place more constraints on everybody than the more “here you go, do whatever you want” licenses, which we call “permissive” licenses. With the permissive licenses, after all, you — or a big corporation headed by Tim Robbins in “Antitrust” (2001) — can take someone’s little-known open source code, add their logo, crank up a multinational marketing arm, and sell the executable to millions of customers and make tons of money and do Scrooge McDuck-style dives into vaults of coins, leaving the original coder out of the windfall. Restrictive licenses prevent this.

Or, Milo would have said something about how he was aware that this was a possible outcome of using a permissive license, but that it was worth the tradeoff because [explanation here]. It is just not plausible to me that Milo does what he does in the film, which is to say nothing in response.

But I am still chewing on what Antitrust is saying about ownership and code, and about the software industry.

Leonard pointed out: just as zombie movies are not really about zombies, but rather have zombies as a visualization of some real phenomenon, the bit of Antitrust where spies are installing cameras and OCR'ing and heisting code is a visualization of GPL violation. I followed up: and NURV murdering them is a visualization of companies engaging in unfair practices to hobble their competition. (NURV is clearly coded as Microsoft: NURV is the focus of the titular antitrust investigations from the Department of Justice, it's in the Pacific Northwest, Gary Winston looks a bit like Gates and has a fancy digital house like Gates's, Gary's wife is named "Clarissa" which is a lot like "Melinda", his second-in-command is a bald white guy who looks like Ballmer, he has a henchman whose first name is Redmond, Winston gives away NURV computers to schools across the country, NURV has deals and partnerships with all the major media companies, and Winston's written a widely-read book about his business philosophy.)

Winston frequently tells his underlings to work more creatively, to surprise him, that nothing is impossible and there are no limits once you unleash yourself. Milo explicitly says at one point, analyzing this pattern, that Winston thus has plausible deniability: he knows his workers will do all manner of illegal shit, but by just saying "surprise me", he can deny ordering them to do so. Antitrust illustrates how decisive, "successful" innovators are sometimes blithe in bypassing ("disrupting") core ethical rules if it'll make them more money, and implies that the language of disruption and "thinking outside the box" is a red flag for willingness to harm. Physically, Gary Winston resembles Bill Gates, but the psychological portrait Antitrust paints makes him look way more like Travis Kalanick.

At some point in the future I will watch the special features and listen to the commentary. (One of the special features is a music video for the Everclear song that plays at the end of the movie. The music video includes clips from the movie. It's like Everclear made a vid!) I imagine I'll have more thoughts then.


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