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Holding Up Hollywood
Daniel Lyons , 11.24.03

Special-effects makers love the "free" Linux operating system. That could end up costing them.

These days the big star at Sony Pictures' special-effects shop, Imageworks, isn't Spider-Man or Stuart Little--it's a piece of software called Linux. Twelve years ago a Finnish college student named Linus Torvalds hacked it together and gave it away on the Internet. Since then thousands of programmers around the world have developed it collaboratively, crafting an operating system that is fast, stable and--best of all--free.

So instead of buying pricey specialized computers from the likes of Silicon Graphics, the techies at Imageworks simply load Linux onto hundreds of cheap Intel-based PCs to crank out dazzling effects for movies like Lord of the Rings, Seabiscuit and Spider-Man. Better yet, these low-cost systems are way more powerful than what they replaced.

"Almost everything we do now we could not have done before," says George Joblove, a senior vice president at Imageworks. "To have Spider-Man swinging through New York City, to have the entire city--the sky, the buildings, everything in that frame--digitally created, that could not have been done five years ago."

Most of Hollywood's big special-effects and animation companies now use Linux. DreamWorks, maker of Shrek and Sinbad, boasts on its Web site of its "groundbreaking adoption of Linux." Digital Domain, which worked on Titanic and Apollo 13, runs Linux on about 1,000 processors. Lucas Digital runs Linux on nearly 1,500 boxes to create effects for the Star Wars epics and Harry Potter movies.

But this love affair with freeware may prove costly. SCO Group, a $64 million (sales) software shop in Lindon, Utah that owns copyrights to the Unix system that inspired Linux, aims to collect fees from companies that use the free code. It may target Hollywood next. "They're using a ton of Linux in Hollywood, so they've become a lightning rod for us," says Darl McBride, SCO's chief executive.

McBride points out that Hollywood studios, keen to protect their movies from being pirated on the Internet, have preached the need to respect copyrights. "It's hypocritical for them to be going around saying that they don't want their stuff to be given away for free, but at the same time saying, ‘Boy, this free stuff sure is cool,'"he says.

And Hollywood is just the start. SCO, which has retained hired gun and Microsoft nemesis David Boies, plans to target titans of financial services, transportation companies, government agencies and big retail chains, says Christopher Sontag, an SCO senior vice president. SCO aims to collect a one-time fee of $699 for every server processor that runs Linux. That would offer a nice windfall:Worldwide, nearly 2.6 million machines run a server version of Linux, says IDC, a market researcher. SCO has a list of 300,000 Linux servers and their owners. Earlier this year it sent warning letters to 1,500 big companies and claims some have signed up, though it won't name any. "We're ahead of plan," Sontag says.

McBride concedes that many firms scoff at the notion of paying fees to some little, unknown outfit, especially since SCO hasn't proven its claims are legitimate. Formerly known as Caldera, the firm didn't even play a role in creating Unix, laying claim to it through a circuitous round of deals. AT&T sold its Unix version in 1992 to Novell, which in 1995 sold it to a firm named Santa Cruz Operation, which in 2001 sold it to Caldera. Santa Cruz became Tarantella and last year Caldera renamed itself SCO.

So what if the studios tell SCO to take a hike?"We're going to force people down a path,"McBride says. "They can choose licensing or litigation. If someone says they want to see a court ruling before they pay, we'll say, ‘Fine, you're the lucky winner. We'll take you first.' I'd be surprised if we make it to the end of the year without filing a lawsuit."

SCO began its litigious crusade in March when it sued IBM for $3 billion, alleging IBMdevelopers put Unix code into Linux. IBMdenies it and has filed a counterclaim; a federal trial is set for 2005 in Salt Lake City.



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