Jump | Free Trial Issue Search | Advanced Search
Home > Magazines > Forbes Magazine
   Companies, People, Ideas
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.

Test Case

1 of 2
Next >

E-mail story
Send comments
Print story
Request a reprint

Today's Top Stories
Music's Zero-Sum Merger
Peter Kafka - 11/6/03 4:27:26 PM ET
Joining Sony Music and BMG could block rival deals, but it won't do much else to help the music biz.
Learning To Trust Brokers Again
Ari Weinberg - 11/6/03 1:35:46 PM ET
A survey says brokers are doing a better job, but is it enough to help Wall Street wash off the scandal?
Sony's Future On A Chip
Arik Hesseldahl - 11/6/03 7:00:00 AM ET
Better semiconductors could mean better gadgets. But is there a better way to make and sell them?
Verizon Wireless Domination
- 11/6/03 10:40:00 AM ET
The telecom supports number-portability legislation and prepares to leave its competitors in the dust.
Products That Push Our Buttons
Forbes staff - 11/3/03 7:00:00 AM ET
With our product reviews, recommendations and readers' forum, you'll be a gadget geek before you know it.
Archive | More From | Special Reports
Subscriptions more > 
Free Trial Issue of Forbes   Forbes Gift Subscription
Subscribe to Newsletters   Subscriber Customer Service


Free Trial Issue of Forbes
Gift Subscriptions

Get quotes

Mortgage Services from Homebound Mortgage
Apply For A Mortgage
Today’s Mortgage Rates
Home Equity
Mortgage Calculator
Free Credit Report
FHA & VA Mortgage Loans
Buyers Calculator
How Much Can You Borrow?
Should I Refinance?
Low Home Equity Rates
Please enter your name and email to begin:



Click 'Continue' to complete your subscription order.



Ad Information Wireless       Reprints / Permissions       Subscriber Services      
© 2003™      All Rights Reserved       Privacy Statement       Terms, Conditions and Notices

Online Marketing by Search Engine Optimization
Market data provided by Reuters. Disclaimer
Stock quotes are delayed at least 15 minutes for Nasdaq, at least 20 minutes for NYSE/AMEX.
U.S. indexes are delayed at least 15 minutes with the exception of S&P 500 which is real-time.
Forbes 40 Index powered by Telemet.
News may include latest headlines from Reuters.