This is the current movie on United’s westbound domestic flights, and so I watched it on the way to Boulder. It was rather painful for me – as both an engineer/innovator and a husband/father – to watch. In some ways it just hits too close to home. Mostly that means it’s a good movie, depicting realistic people and situations, and I did enjoy it. I do have one pretty major quibble with it, though. The movie clearly tries to depict Ford as having deliberately copied protagonist Bob Kearns’s idea from a prototype, but the actual jury decision was non-deliberate infringement of Kearns’s patents. This raises the issue of how Kearns, who had turned down multiple million-dollar offers when a million dollars actually meant something because he wanted an admission of wrongdoing from Ford, would consider such a decision adequate. Instead of dealing with that, though, the movie just ignores the disconnect between what they portray Kearns as wanting and what he actually got.

There are also some areas in which I found myself losing sympathy for Kearns. For example, there’s one point where he’s being offered a settlement. His wife is clearly in favor, but he won’t even discuss it. In my opinion, that’s no way to run a marriage. When Cindy and I wrote our own wedding vows, one was to treat each other’s needs and priorities as equal to our own. That’s a high standard, which neither of us has always met, but I still think it’s a good principle and one at least as important as the principles on which Kearns’s refusal of the settlement was based. I think his behavior (at least as portrayed in the movie) was contemptuous of his wife and his marriage, and it’s no wonder she left him.

The other point on which my views diverge from Kearns’s is on his insistence that Ford admit wrongdoing. As one of the other characters points out – rightly in my opinion, despite that character being more of a bad guy – the way companies admit wrongdoing is by paying cash. Car companies in particular do this even when lives are at stake, when cars burst into flame or roll over and crush people. Other companies also pay for what they do wrong without ever admitting it was wrong, as when Sun refuses to admit that they drew inspiration for ZFS from NetApp’s WAFL (even as they aggressively take the exact opposite position when they demand that anyone who does anything in the system-tracing space must bow down and worship DTrace first). Companies measure their value in dollars, they both collect and pay their debts in dollars, and expecting them to provide any kind of non-monetary compensation for harms they have caused is just not realistic. In fact Ford never did admit wrongdoing in the Kearns case. Kearns did eventually prevail, but the court’s award was less than had been offered before. More importantly, how many other inventors in similar situations didn’t prevail? We hear about the few that do, but in general I don’t think it’s a good example to follow. Make them pay what they owe, certainly, but don’t demand payment in a coin that they don’t understand.