The Linux operating system owes most of its popularity to the fact that it is open-source software and anyone can expand or edit it.
But that is proving a double-edged sword for software companies who make a loss when customers switch from commercial operating systems to Linux.
So these companies try and make many of their applications incompatible with Linux.
After installing Linux, some users then discover that multimedia programs for playing music and movies stop working.
This is caused by codecs or rather, the lack of them.
Computer programs use codecs to convert digital data between different formats.
These codecs are frequently known by the same-named data format such as MP3 or WMA.
For a computer program to use a file with the MP3 codec, the manufacturer must have paid the license fee.
Fans of open-source software like OpenSuse or Ubuntu say their programs often lack codecs for legal reasons.
“Technically speaking, embedding codecs is no problem,” says Martin Lasarsch, who works on the Suse Project for Novell.
The difficulty lies in pulling the individual licenses together, he said, adding, “There’s no central distribution center.”
And most programs need more than one codec. An application to play a DVD requires the MPEG2 codec to reproduce image and a second codec, usually AC3, for the sound.
That’s not the only problem, said Andreas Kroschel, of the PC-Welt Linux magazine and noted, “There are patents on decoding methods.”
Companies may be able to pay the fees.
But clubs or software developers’ associations or people who simply tinker with Linux, often lack the financial means.
Of course, none of this has stopped Linux enthusiasts from integrating movies and MP3s into their systems.
Some distributors help them install the required software.
But some computer users will not allow legal hurdles to stop them.
Official community Web sites provide information on how codecs are installed on computers.
The latest version of OpenSuse, said Lasarsch, has a function that takes users to a Web site where they can download any missing codecs.
Another tip is to download a multifunctional MPlayer, which includes the necessary codecs.
Mark Broecker, who gives Linux courses at a college in Hamburg, Germany, says companies could try fee-based distribution.
“Unfortunately, this would only impact some of the less popular systems,” he said.
Consumers may be willing to pay for some of the more popular systems, he believes.
But there is hardly any demand as most people seem content to download any codecs they need from the Internet.
Linux is a generic term that refers to Unix-like computer operating systems that use the Linux kernel in an open source environment.