Microsoft à la Hollywood

A new movie argues that software should be free. Try getting in without buying a ticket.

The new movie AntiTrust is an eerily accurate portrayal of life at Microsoft Corp. (where I’ve worked for five years)—right down to the hidden cameras that track employees’ every movement and the chairman’s eccentric habit of having anyone who gets in his way brutally beaten to death. I had no idea, frankly, that this stuff was so widely known. Someone must have talked. They will pay.

Some artistic license is taken. The real-life chairman of the company (he’s called “Gary Winston” and it’s called “NURV Inc.” in the movie) is not actually quite as handsome and sleek as Tim Robbins, who plays him in the movie. But it’s far more important that the movie, with enormous subtlety, captures the chairman’s egomania, his ruthlessness, and his utter contempt for rivals, employees, the rule of law, civilization, and human life.

The plot concerns a brilliant young programmer named Milo who joins the company, begins to suspect its evil designs, and … well, you can imagine. (Go ahead. It isn’t hard.) That’s right: He goes straight to the cops.

No, of course not: They never go to the cops in this kind of movie. Why not? Because (as a would-be screenwriter friend once explained to me) the cops would never believe their story.

Ordinarily, I have a problem with this explanation. When holding a bag of popcorn, I will suspend my disbelief as willingly as the next fellow. But please don’t ask us, the audience, to be more credulous than the movie’s own fictional characters. Don’t ask us to believe a plot line that depends on being too absurd to believe. That is insulting. (Unless, of course, it’s in French and surrealist or something.) In AntiTrust, fortunately, there is another reason the young hero doesn’t go to the authorities: The company has them all in its pocket. That is so obviously true in real life—and explains so well the smooth sailing Microsoft has had with government at all levels in recent years—that it lends credibility to the entire story line.

Thank goodness there is one segment of American society that can’t be bought and will not be silenced. That is Hollywood. The great cause for which AntiTrust sacrifices the lives of brilliant young software developers is open-source code. Open-source crusaders believe that software should not be copyrighted. They believe that universal freedom to use and tinker with existing programs is the best way to promote future innovations. But more than that: They believe the very concept of intellectual property rights—legal ownership of information in any form—is downright immoral.

As young Milo declares in the last line of the movie, as the music swells (and if you’re in any actual doubt about how this plot comes out, stop reading here—if you can read), “Human knowledge belongs to the world!”

The evil Gates figure, in the film as in real life, holds the opposite view: that human knowledge increases faster when those who produce it are able to own and profit from it for a while. This view may well have been shared by such figures as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Katherine Harris. I’m not sure. It also happens to have been shared by the authors of the Constitution, who specifically authorized Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Just because Bill Gates is in good company doesn’t prove he’s right, of course. These are, after all, the same guys who gave us the Electoral College. It does, though, suggest that you don’t necessarily have to be a murderous madman to believe in intellectual property rights. And you needn’t go back 200 years to illustrate the point. For example, try getting in to see AntiTrust without buying a ticket. Or try getting Tim Robbins to star in his next movie (he’s reportedly agonizing between a sci-fi thriller with the working title Jurisdiction and a musical comedy to be called Probate!) without getting paid, because the data bits that capture his performance “belong to the world.” Indeed the movie itself—accurate as it is about such matters as the chairman’s huge house by the lake and his tendency to hire beautiful artists to sleep with his star programmers—is a bit muddled about information liberation. The movie chairman’s basic motive is (once again, stop here if you hope to be surprised) to steal other people’s code. But why is it wrong to purloin someone else’s code if software code “belongs to the world”?

To be sure, whatever your views on intellectual property rights, it is not nice to acquire other people’s software code by bopping them on the head and leaving them a bloody corpse. And, to be sure, exaggeration and simplification are perfectly legitimate techniques for translating a real-life situation into a movie. AntiTrust doesn’t pretend to be a documentary.

It does, however, pretend to be using the techniques of fictionalization to be telling some sort of fundamental truth about the world. That truth has something vaguely to do with the company I work for being a force for evil. At one point, the Gates character gives a nice little speechlet asking, What have we done that’s so terrible? In an industry that has transformed the world, and where innovation proceeds at a ferocious pace, what exactly is the problem? This rings a little hollow when you know he’s a coldhearted killer. When you don’t, it seems like all too good a question.

So the mystery remains: Who squealed?