Tron: An open source legacy

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I was pretty excited to see the announcement about a sequel to Tron. The original movie was one that helped define my career as a bona fide geek. I still remember being wowed by the light cycles and over-the-top scenes.

When I first started using Linux, one of the first open source games I played was GLTron, a faithful recreation of the movie's light-cycle scenes. Maybe it was the simple, fast-paced gameplay or the fact that the graphics were identical to that of the film in almost every way, but that game still sticks out in my mind as one of my first open source

gaming experiences. Suffice to say, open source and Tron are married in my mind forever thanks to that program (not to mention that both are tantamount to my geek cred).

So I was pretty shocked to see that the entirety of the new film, Tron: Legacy, is essentially an advertisement for open source software. The overtones of the open source way are found throughout the film.

Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the new Tron yet (and plan to) you might want to stop here.  Or scroll down till you see the bold text again.

The opening scene features the protagonist, Sam, 'stealing' source code—though technically it's his code to begin with. The code is being held  by a decidedly evil programmer and the board members of a large software company engaging in unfair lock-in tactics. The source code of the operating system is then released to the masses for fair use and improvement of the product. Aside from the psuedo-terrorism aspect, it's a story open source fans can really get behind.

However, Disney and its writers didn't stop with the opening sequence. The whole point of the movie is solving all of the world's problems by releasing an open source program from the Grid, aka the cyber-universe created in the original film. This is met with resistance that is eventually overcome in the movie's climax. The good guys win and we're left to assume that the open source program teaches the rest of the world to share, collaborate, and become a better place.

End spoiler.

It's not the first time that Disney has advocated open source, dating back to their switch to Linux and monetary support of Crossover Office to help get Photoshop running in Linux. Disney was quick to announce that this saved Disney, Pixar, and other animation studios thousands of dollars a year in license costs alone. It was a huge deal at a time when most corporations were far from considering deploying Linux on anything other than scientific workstations. Still, it's one thing to use open source as a cost-cutting business move. But to make it the underlying premise of an entire feature film--well that's pretty cool to say the least.

I saw the film while visiting family over the holidays. My younger brothers specifically requested we see it. Little did I know the movie would lead to our first conversation about the open source movement. It started on the ride home. They had a fundamental understanding right out of the gate. I could see that they understood immediately why the old way of developing software was broken, and that the open source way seemed more right. More fair.

I have not really mentioned open source in the past due to their age.  At this point in their lives, I thought they probably lack the understanding of the fundamentals of licensing and programming to properly grasp the concept. So it made me wonder how many other families had an open source discussion after watching the film? How many more might later see a mention of open source in the news and finally get it? This is a pretty big deal.

Tron: Legacy is proof that our movement is gaining more momentum than any of us expected. Think about it: The highest grossing movie of the 2010 holiday season deals explicitly with open source software.

This should stand out on the timeline of open source progress--the path of returning freedom to users. Considering that is the theme of the two movies, it makes a lot of sense.

If you haven't checked the movie out yet, you owe it to yourself. I'm not a proper film critic, so I won't comment on the quality of the story or acting. Yet I can say that hearing the iconic Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) mention the need to have software released to the masses via an open source model is worth the price of admission alone.

If you've seen the film, what did you think? Did you have a chance to have that open source dialog with your friends and family? Do you agree with how the producers portrayed our movement? Give us your take in the comments section below.

Travis Kepley is a Senior Instructor at Red Hat where he helps employees, partners and customers understand how Open Source Software can create a better IT and business infrastructure. Travis started at Red Hat in January of 2008 as a Technical Support Engineer before becoming a Solutions Architect prior to moving to his current role.


This is a great post and fun to read. I haven't seen the movie yet, but this makes me want to.

It's a great article and I can see that I'm not the only one who thought of the movie as an open source movie. I have to say that after watching it me and my wife had a discussion about open source and was really entertaining.

Let's hope we have more of this type of movies in the future.

I still haven't watched this movie!

What struck me was two things from the scene in the proprietary software company's boardroom.

First, when asked what is actually improved in this new version of the OS, the programmer basically answers with "we put a new version number on it." Very much a proprietary software company attitude right there.

But the best part is that, once the board members realize that the source code of the OS has been leaked, the programmer starts frantically typing on his computer, and as the shot cuts to his computer screen, you can clearly see command line Linux (grep, etc.) being used. Very funny coming from a company written with the same attitudes about software as a few of the biggest proprietary companies in the industry today.

I remember being amazed that there was a tech movie using real life tech in their interaction with the OS. Thanks for the reminder. Also, in another scene with the protagonist and a computer (not to give away more spoilers), he was clearly using bash. That was really cool.

I remember a time when I had to explain what open source was to journalists, do a hard sell on what it is better etc. etc. Recently, I met a rookie journalist, a trainee with a mainstream publication and she was so clued into open source that she was a better evangelist than I am :-)

Change is in the air!

I think in the original Tron it was a game or set of games that the protagonist was writing. So not exactly OSS. I like the conceptual adaption though....

(long ranting comment ahead -- sorry)

When watching Tron with my kid's I nudged them at the "Open Source scene" and said -- hey that's what I do (I run the Open Source process at my company). Then as the scene unfolded, I regretted my association, and explained to my kids that the I don't do what the hero did. What he did was wrong.

You said: "[...] The source code of the operating system is then released to the masses for fair use and improvement of the product. Aside from the psuedo-terrorism aspect, it's a story open source fans can really get behind."

But I can't get behind this. The main motivator for the hero to remain associated with the "evil" corporation is to be able to steal their code and leak/publish it. (BTW, they are evil because of what exactly? cynicism, capitalism, not believing in Open Source? is this where the divide between good and evil lies?) In the ethics of a Robin-Hood world, stealing code from the company and giving it to the masses is called "good". But theft is not the kind of Open Source behavior that I can get behind. An investor (even the largest one) is not granted authority to steal product code and publish it. Moreover, the act of leaking code to the public is not at all the same as the act of placing an Open Source license on code -- legally (you have to own the copyright), morally (we don't advocate theft), or effectively (stolen code does not attract community participation since the liability is great).

Yes, if the company thought about it (and had me advising them), they might do itself and their customers a great service leveraging the benefits of Open Source. But when code is leaked do you think they would get contributions from their community? It's toxic code. This is hardly the kind of Open Source strategy that works.

The strongest and most passionate Open Source advocates speak out against the notion of private intellectual property, and they advocate how openness improves knowledge. FOSS proved critical to the evolution of the Internet and the new economy. It paved the foundation for purposeful sharing and crowdsourcing in the social media space. It created markets for the "little guys" and made money for a bunch of "big guys". And it really stuck it in the eyes of a couple of companies that we all love to hate. But let's stop short of advocating theft as an Open Source virtue.

It is most ironic to me that Hollywood's super wealthy movie executives line their pockets by monetizing our lax sense of ethics and love for the "little guy". They must laugh at how simple minded we are when we are so easily entertained by acts of corporate espionage and property theft by the attractive good guy (who "gets the girl" at the end, of course). Try stealing their movie IP and see how amusing that is to them.

I agree, it was a very entertaining movie. I loved the visual effects (you can decide if I mean the graphics or the costumes -- I admit, both caught my attention). And yes, it was great to see Open Source in pop culture, especially promoted as a virtue. I just wish it was done so in a manner that was legal so that I could tell my kids "that's what I do at work as the Open Source guy!"

Silly that you missed that he was liberating his own property... he was the primary share holder. Systems that his father never intended to be monetized.

Stories of Disney impounding cakes at school bake sales because they look like Mickey Mouse are probably not true... hmmmmm... well, probably not...

The thought of one of the most aggressive trademark-enforcing corporations in American history 'espousing open source' is ludicrous.

It's brutal, cynical and (leave it to Disney) masterful manipulation of someone else's culture to make a profit.

My daughter really believes in Tinkerbell, but she's five. Don't try teach me "How To Believe" that Disney actually espouses open source sensibilities. They're glamorizing it to make a buck. That's hardly something to crow about.

quote ---But theft is not the kind of Open Source behavior that I can get behind. An investor (even the largest one) is not granted authority to steal product code and publish it. Moreover, the act of leaking code to the public is not at all the same as the act of placing an Open Source license on code -- legally (you have to own the copyright), morally (we don't advocate theft) ---quote

Well, it is not theft. That is what so many people get wrong. "Stealing" code is never theft, it is copy right infringement. Theft is when you remove a object and it is not longer there (in its original place). Copyright infringement means that you copy something illegally.
Of course, theft sounds so much more serious and that is why everybody uses it, but it is not what is happening.

I fail to understand how come the largest shareholder is not allowed to do as he pleases with his property? Capitalism is about the power of money: Who pays for something, how has the property rights to something (because he provided the money for it), controls it absolutely.
In the case of tron, this largest shareholder could pretty much do as he pleases. If they did not agree what he did, he could always sell shares (which would crash the stock value of course and damange confidence in the company) or make his dissent public and the company would have to follow his wishes.
As it seems clear in Tron, Kevin Flynns son owned a huge part of the company.
So he was not just the majority shareholder by a small margin.

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