The GNU Project
by Richard Stallman
Originally published in the book Open Sources. Richard
never a supporter of “open source”, but contributed
this article so that the ideas of the free software movement would not
be entirely absent from that book.
Why it is even more important than ever
that the software we use be free.
The first software-sharing community
When I started working at the
Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a
software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing
of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old
as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we
did it more than most.
The AI Lab used a timesharing operating system called
Incompatible Timesharing System) that the lab's staff hackers (1) had
designed and written in assembler language for the Digital
PDP-10, one of
the large computers of the era. As a member of this community, an AI
Lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system.
We did not call our software “free software”, because that
term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from
another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we
gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and
interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so
that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make
a new program.
(1) The use of “hacker” to mean “security
breaker” is a confusion on the part of the mass media. We
hackers refuse to recognize that meaning, and continue using the word
to mean someone who loves to program, someone who enjoys playful
cleverness, or the combination of the two. See my
The collapse of the community
The situation changed drastically in the early 1980s when Digital
discontinued the PDP-10 series. Its architecture, elegant and
powerful in the 60s, could not extend naturally to the larger address
spaces that were becoming feasible in the 80s. This meant that nearly
all of the programs composing ITS were obsolete.
The AI Lab hacker community had already collapsed, not long before.
In 1981, the spin-off company Symbolics had hired away nearly all of
the hackers from the AI Lab, and the depopulated community was unable
to maintain itself. (The book Hackers, by Steve Levy, describes these
events, as well as giving a clear picture of this community in its
prime.) When the AI Lab bought a new PDP-10 in 1982, its
administrators decided to use Digital's nonfree timesharing system
instead of ITS.
The modern computers of the era, such as the VAX or the 68020, had
their own operating systems, but none of them were free software: you
had to sign a nondisclosure agreement even to get an executable copy.
This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not
to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The
rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, “If you
share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes,
beg us to make them.”
The idea that the proprietary software social system—the system
that says you are not allowed to share or change software—is
antisocial, that it is unethical, that it is simply wrong, may come as
a surprise to some readers. But what else could we say about a system
based on dividing the public and keeping users helpless? Readers who
find the idea surprising may have taken the proprietary software
social system as a given, or judged it on the terms suggested by
proprietary software businesses. Software publishers have worked long
and hard to convince people that there is only one way to look at the
When software publishers talk about “enforcing” their
“rights” or “stopping piracy”, what they
actually say is secondary. The real message of these statements is
in the unstated assumptions they take for granted, which the public is
asked to accept without examination. Let's therefore examine them.
One assumption is that software companies have an unquestionable natural
right to own software and thus have power over all its users. (If
this were a natural right, then no matter how much harm it does to the
public, we could not object.) Interestingly, the US Constitution and
legal tradition reject this view; copyright is not a natural right,
but an artificial government-imposed monopoly that limits the users'
natural right to copy.
Another unstated assumption is that the only important thing about
software is what jobs it allows you to do—that we computer users
should not care what kind of society we are allowed to have.
A third assumption is that we would have no usable software (or would
never have a program to do this or that particular job) if we did not
offer a company power over the users of the program. This assumption
may have seemed plausible, before the free software movement
demonstrated that we can make plenty of useful software without
putting chains on it.
If we decline to accept these assumptions, and judge these issues
based on ordinary commonsense morality while placing the users first,
we arrive at very different conclusions. Computer users should be
free to modify programs to fit their needs, and free to share
software, because helping other people is the basis of society.
There is no room here for an extensive statement of the reasoning
behind this conclusion, so I refer the reader to the web pages
A stark moral choice
With my community gone, to continue as before was impossible.
Instead, I faced a stark moral choice.
The easy choice was to join the proprietary software world, signing
nondisclosure agreements and promising not to help my fellow hacker.
Most likely I would also be developing software that was released
under nondisclosure agreements, thus adding to the pressure on other
people to betray their fellows too.
I could have made money this way, and perhaps amused myself writing
code. But I knew that at the end of my career, I would look back on
years of building walls to divide people, and feel I had spent my life
making the world a worse place.
I had already experienced being on the receiving end of a
nondisclosure agreement, when someone refused to give me and the MIT
AI Lab the source code for the control program for our printer. (The
lack of certain features in this program made use of the printer
extremely frustrating.) So I could not tell myself that nondisclosure
agreements were innocent. I was very angry when he refused to share
with us; I could not turn around and do the same thing to everyone
Another choice, straightforward but unpleasant, was to leave the
computer field. That way my skills would not be misused, but they
would still be wasted. I would not be culpable for dividing and
restricting computer users, but it would happen nonetheless.
So I looked for a way that a programmer could do something for the
good. I asked myself, was there a program or programs that I could
write, so as to make a community possible once again?
The answer was clear: what was needed first was an operating system.
That is the crucial software for starting to use a computer. With an
operating system, you can do many things; without one, you cannot run
the computer at all. With a free operating system, we could again
have a community of cooperating hackers—and invite anyone to join.
And anyone would be able to use a computer without starting out by
conspiring to deprive his or her friends.
As an operating system developer, I had the right skills for this job.
So even though I could not take success for granted, I realized that I
was elected to do the job. I chose to make the system compatible with
Unix so that it would be portable, and so that Unix users could easily
switch to it. The name GNU was chosen, following a hacker tradition, as
a recursive acronym for “GNU's Not Unix.”
An operating system does not mean just a kernel, barely enough to run
other programs. In the 1970s, every operating system worthy of the
name included command processors, assemblers, compilers, interpreters,
debuggers, text editors, mailers, and much more. ITS had them,
Multics had them, VMS had them, and Unix had them. The GNU operating
system would include them too.
Later I heard these words, attributed to Hillel (1):
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
The decision to start the GNU Project was based on a similar spirit.
(1) As an Atheist, I don't follow any religious leaders, but I
sometimes find I admire something one of them has said.
Free as in freedom
The term “free software” is sometimes misunderstood—it
has nothing to do with price. It is about freedom. Here, therefore,
is the definition of free software.
A program is free software, for you, a particular user, if:
- You have the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
- You have the freedom to modify the program to suit your needs.
(To make this freedom effective in practice, you must have access
to the source code, since making changes in a program without
having the source code is exceedingly difficult.)
- You have the freedom to redistribute copies, either gratis
or for a fee.
- You have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the program,
so that the community can benefit from your improvements.
Since “free” refers to freedom, not to price, there is no
contradiction between selling copies and free software. In fact, the
freedom to sell copies is crucial: collections of free software sold
on CD-ROMs are important for the community, and selling them is an
important way to raise funds for free software development.
Therefore, a program which people are not free to include on these
collections is not free software.
Because of the ambiguity of “free”, people have long
looked for alternatives, but no one has found a better term.
The English language has more words and nuances than any other, but it
lacks a simple, unambiguous, word that means “free”, as in
freedom—“unfettered” being the word that comes closest in
meaning. Such alternatives as “liberated”,
“freedom”, and “open” have either the wrong
meaning or some other disadvantage.
GNU software and the GNU system
Developing a whole system is a very large project. To bring it into
reach, I decided to adapt and use existing pieces of free software
wherever that was possible. For example, I decided at the very
beginning to use TeX as the principal text formatter; a few years
later, I decided to use the X Window System rather than writing
another window system for GNU.
Because of these decisions, and others like them,
the GNU system is not the same as the collection of all
GNU software. The GNU system includes programs that are not GNU
software, programs that were developed by other people and projects
for their own purposes, but which we can use because they are free
Commencing the project
In January 1984 I quit my job at MIT and began writing GNU software.
Leaving MIT was necessary so that MIT would not be able to interfere
with distributing GNU as free software. If I had remained on the
staff, MIT could have claimed to own the work, and could have imposed
their own distribution terms, or even turned the work into a
proprietary software package. I had no intention of doing a large
amount of work only to see it become useless for its intended purpose:
creating a new software-sharing community.
However, Professor Winston, then the head of the MIT AI Lab, kindly
invited me to keep using the lab's facilities.
The first steps
Shortly before beginning the GNU Project, I heard about the Free
University Compiler Kit, also known as VUCK. (The Dutch word for
“free” is written with a v.) This was a compiler
designed to handle multiple languages, including C and Pascal, and to
support multiple target machines. I wrote to its author asking if GNU
could use it.
He responded derisively, stating that the university was free but the
compiler was not. I therefore decided that my first program for the
GNU Project would be a multilanguage, multiplatform compiler.
Hoping to avoid the need to write the whole compiler myself, I
obtained the source code for the Pastel compiler, which was a
multiplatform compiler developed at Lawrence Livermore Lab. It
supported, and was written in, an extended version of Pascal, designed
to be a system-programming language. I added a C front end, and began
porting it to the Motorola 68000 computer. But I had to give that
up when I discovered that the compiler needed many megabytes of stack
space, and the available 68000 Unix system would only allow 64k.
I then realized that the Pastel compiler functioned by parsing the
entire input file into a syntax tree, converting the whole syntax tree
into a chain of “instructions”, and then generating the
whole output file, without ever freeing any storage. At this point, I
concluded I would have to write a new compiler from scratch. That new
compiler is now known as GCC;
none of the Pastel compiler is used in it, but I managed to adapt and
use the C front end that I had written. But that was some years
later; first, I worked on GNU Emacs.
I began work on GNU Emacs in September 1984, and in early 1985 it was
beginning to be usable. This enabled me to begin using Unix systems
to do editing; having no interest in learning to use vi or ed, I had
done my editing on other kinds of machines until then.
At this point, people began wanting to use GNU Emacs, which raised the
question of how to distribute it. Of course, I put it on the
anonymous ftp server on the MIT computer that I used. (This computer,
prep.ai.mit.edu, thus became the principal GNU ftp distribution site;
when it was decommissioned a few years later, we transferred the name
to our new ftp server.) But at that time, many of the interested
people were not on the Internet and could not get a copy by ftp. So
the question was, what would I say to them?
I could have said, “Find a friend who is on the net and who will make
a copy for you.” Or I could have done what I did with the original
PDP-10 Emacs: tell them, “Mail me a tape and a
SASE, and I
will mail it back with Emacs on it.” But I had no job, and I was
looking for ways to make money from free software. So I announced
that I would mail a tape to whoever wanted one, for a fee of $150. In
this way, I started a free software distribution business, the
precursor of the companies that today distribute entire GNU/Linux
Is a program free for every user?
If a program is free software when it leaves the hands of its author,
this does not necessarily mean it will be free software for everyone
who has a copy of it. For example,
software (software that is not copyrighted) is free software; but
anyone can make a proprietary modified version of it. Likewise, many
free programs are copyrighted but distributed under simple permissive
licenses which allow proprietary modified versions.
The paradigmatic example of this problem is the X Window System.
Developed at MIT, and released as free software with a permissive
license, it was soon adopted by various computer companies. They
added X to their proprietary Unix systems, in binary form only, and
covered by the same nondisclosure agreement. These copies of X were
no more free software than Unix was.
The developers of the X Window System did not consider this a
problem—they expected and intended this to happen. Their goal was
not freedom, just “success”, defined as “having many
users.” They did not care whether these users had freedom, only
that they should be numerous.
This led to a paradoxical situation where two different ways of
counting the amount of freedom gave different answers to the question,
“Is this program free?” If you judged based on the freedom
provided by the distribution terms of the MIT release, you would say
that X was free software. But if you measured the freedom of the
average user of X, you would have to say it was proprietary software.
Most X users were running the proprietary versions that came with Unix
systems, not the free version.
Copyleft and the GNU GPL
The goal of GNU was to give users freedom, not just to be popular. So
we needed to use distribution terms that would prevent GNU software
from being turned into proprietary software. The method we use is
Copyleft uses copyright law, but flips it over to serve the opposite
of its usual purpose: instead of a means for restricting a program, it
becomes a means for keeping the program free.
The central idea of copyleft is that we give everyone permission to
run the program, copy the program, modify the program, and distribute
modified versions—but not permission to add restrictions of their
own. Thus, the crucial freedoms that define “free
software” are guaranteed to everyone who has a copy; they become
For an effective copyleft, modified versions must also be free. This
ensures that work based on ours becomes available to our community if
it is published. When programmers who have jobs as programmers
volunteer to improve GNU software, it is copyleft that prevents their
employers from saying, “You can't share those changes, because
we are going to use them to make our proprietary version of the
The requirement that changes must be free is essential if we want to
ensure freedom for every user of the program. The companies that
privatized the X Window System usually made some changes to port it to
their systems and hardware. These changes were small compared with
the great extent of X, but they were not trivial. If making changes
were an excuse to deny the users freedom, it would be easy for anyone
to take advantage of the excuse.
A related issue concerns combining a free program with nonfree code.
Such a combination would inevitably be nonfree; whichever freedoms
are lacking for the nonfree part would be lacking for the whole as
well. To permit such combinations would open a hole big enough to
sink a ship. Therefore, a crucial requirement for copyleft is to plug
this hole: anything added to or combined with a copylefted program
must be such that the larger combined version is also free and
The specific implementation of copyleft that we use for most GNU
software is the GNU General Public License, or GNU GPL for short. We
have other kinds of copyleft that are used in specific circumstances.
GNU manuals are copylefted also, but use a much simpler kind of
copyleft, because the complexity of the GNU GPL is not necessary
(1) In 1984 or 1985, Don Hopkins (a very imaginative fellow) mailed me
a letter. On the envelope he had written several amusing sayings,
including this one: “Copyleft—all rights reversed.” I
used the word “copyleft” to name the distribution concept
I was developing at the time.
(2) We now use the GNU Free
Documentation License for documentation.
The Free Software Foundation
As interest in using Emacs was growing, other people became
involved in the GNU project, and we decided that it was time to seek
funding once again. So in 1985 we created
the Free Software Foundation (FSF),
a tax-exempt charity for free software development. The
FSF also took over
the Emacs tape distribution business; later it extended this by adding
other free software (both GNU and non-GNU) to the tape, and by selling
free manuals as well.
Most of the FSF's income used to come from sales of copies of free
software and of other related services (CD-ROMs of source code,
CD-ROMs with binaries, nicely printed manuals, all with the freedom to
redistribute and modify), and Deluxe Distributions (distributions for
which we built the whole collection of software for the customer's
choice of platform). Today the FSF
still sells manuals and other
gear, but it gets the bulk of its funding from members' dues. You
can join the FSF at fsf.org.
Free Software Foundation employees have written and maintained a
number of GNU software packages. Two notable ones are the C library
and the shell. The GNU C library is what every program running on a
GNU/Linux system uses to communicate with Linux. It was developed by
a member of the Free Software Foundation staff, Roland McGrath. The
shell used on most GNU/Linux systems is
BASH, the Bourne Again
Shell(1), which was developed by FSF employee Brian Fox.
We funded development of these programs because the GNU Project was
not just about tools or a development environment. Our goal was a
complete operating system, and these programs were needed for that
(1) “Bourne Again Shell” is a play on the name
“Bourne Shell”, which was the usual shell on Unix.
Free software support
The free software philosophy rejects a specific widespread business
practice, but it is not against business. When businesses respect the
users' freedom, we wish them success.
Selling copies of Emacs demonstrates one kind of free software
business. When the FSF took over that business, I needed another way
to make a living. I found it in selling services relating to the free
software I had developed. This included teaching, for subjects such
as how to program GNU Emacs and how to customize GCC, and software
development, mostly porting GCC to new platforms.
Today each of these kinds of free software business is practiced by a
number of corporations. Some distribute free software collections on
CD-ROM; others sell support at levels ranging from answering user
questions, to fixing bugs, to adding major new features. We are even
beginning to see free software companies based on launching new free
Watch out, though—a number of companies that associate themselves
with the term “open source” actually base their business
on nonfree software that works with free software. These are not
free software companies, they are proprietary software companies whose
products tempt users away from freedom. They call these programs
“value-added packages”, which shows the values they
would like us to adopt: convenience above freedom. If we value freedom
more, we should call them “freedom-subtracted” packages.
The principal goal of GNU is to be free software. Even if GNU had no
technical advantage over Unix, it would have a social advantage,
allowing users to cooperate, and an ethical advantage, respecting the
But it was natural to apply the known standards of good practice to
the work—for example, dynamically allocating data structures to avoid
arbitrary fixed size limits, and handling all the possible 8-bit codes
wherever that made sense.
In addition, we rejected the Unix focus on small memory size, by
deciding not to support 16-bit machines (it was clear that 32-bit
machines would be the norm by the time the GNU system was finished),
and to make no effort to reduce memory usage unless it exceeded a
megabyte. In programs for which handling very large files was not
crucial, we encouraged programmers to read an entire input file into
core, then scan its contents without having to worry about I/O.
These decisions enabled many GNU programs to surpass their Unix
counterparts in reliability and speed.
As the GNU Project's reputation grew, people began offering to donate
machines running Unix to the project. These were very useful, because
the easiest way to develop components of GNU was to do it on a Unix
system, and replace the components of that system one by one. But
they raised an ethical issue: whether it was right for us to have a
copy of Unix at all.
Unix was (and is) proprietary software, and the GNU Project's
philosophy said that we should not use proprietary software. But,
applying the same reasoning that leads to the conclusion that violence
in self defense is justified, I concluded that it was legitimate to
use a proprietary package when that was crucial for developing a free
replacement that would help others stop using the proprietary package.
But, even if this was a justifiable evil, it was still an evil. Today
we no longer have any copies of Unix, because we have replaced them
with free operating systems. If we could not replace a machine's
operating system with a free one, we replaced the machine instead.
The GNU Task List
As the GNU Project proceeded, and increasing numbers of system
components were found or developed, eventually it became useful to
make a list of the remaining gaps. We used it to recruit developers
to write the missing pieces. This list became known as the GNU Task
List. In addition to missing Unix components, we listed various
other useful software and documentation projects that, we thought, a
truly complete system ought to have.
Today (1), hardly any Unix components are left in the GNU Task
List—those jobs had been done, aside from a few inessential
ones. But the list is full of projects that some might call
“applications”. Any program that appeals to more than a
narrow class of users would be a useful thing to add to an operating
Even games are included in the task list—and have been since the
beginning. Unix included games, so naturally GNU should too. But
compatibility was not an issue for games, so we did not follow the
list of games that Unix had. Instead, we listed a spectrum of
different kinds of games that users might like.
(1) That was written in 1998. In 2009 we no longer maintain a long
task list. The community develops free software so fast that we can't
even keep track of it all. Instead, we have a list of High Priority
Projects, a much shorter list of projects we really want to encourage
people to write.
The GNU Library GPL
The GNU C library uses a special kind of copyleft called the GNU
Library General Public License(1), which gives permission to link
proprietary software with the library. Why make this exception?
It is not a matter of principle; there is no principle that says
proprietary software products are entitled to include our code. (Why
contribute to a project predicated on refusing to share with us?)
Using the LGPL for the C library, or for any library, is a matter of
The C library does a generic job; every proprietary system or compiler
comes with a C library. Therefore, to make our C library available
only to free software would not have given free software any
advantage—it would only have discouraged use of our library.
One system is an exception to this: on the GNU system (and this
includes GNU/Linux), the GNU C library is the only C library. So the
distribution terms of the GNU C library determine whether it is
possible to compile a proprietary program for the GNU system. There
is no ethical reason to allow proprietary applications on the GNU
system, but strategically it seems that disallowing them would do more
to discourage use of the GNU system than to encourage development of
free applications. That is why using the Library GPL is a good
strategy for the C library.
For other libraries, the strategic decision needs to be
considered on a case-by-case basis. When a library does a special job
that can help write certain kinds of programs, then releasing it under
the GPL, limiting it to free programs only, is a way of helping other
free software developers, giving them an advantage against proprietary
Consider GNU Readline, a library that was developed to provide
command-line editing for BASH. Readline is released under the
ordinary GNU GPL, not the Library GPL. This probably does reduce the
amount Readline is used, but that is no loss for us. Meanwhile, at
least one useful application has been made free software specifically
so it could use Readline, and that is a real gain for the
Proprietary software developers have the advantages money provides;
free software developers need to make advantages for each other. I
hope some day we will have a large collection of GPL-covered libraries
that have no parallel available to proprietary software, providing
useful modules to serve as building blocks in new free software, and
adding up to a major advantage for further free software development.
(1) This license is now called the GNU Lesser General Public License,
to avoid giving the idea that all libraries ought to use it.
See Why you shouldn't use the
Lesser GPL for your next library for more information.
Scratching an itch?
Eric Raymond says that “Every good work of software starts by
scratching a developer's personal itch.” Maybe that happens
sometimes, but many essential pieces of GNU software were developed in
order to have a complete free operating system. They come from a
vision and a plan, not from impulse.
For example, we developed the GNU C library because a Unix-like system
needs a C library, BASH because a Unix-like
system needs a shell, and GNU tar because a Unix-like system needs a
tar program. The same is true for my own programs—the GNU C
compiler, GNU Emacs, GDB and GNU Make.
Some GNU programs were developed to cope with specific threats to our
freedom. Thus, we developed gzip to replace the Compress program,
which had been lost to the community because of
the LZW patents. We found
people to develop LessTif, and more recently started
and Harmony, to address the problems caused by certain proprietary
libraries (see below). We are developing the GNU Privacy Guard to
replace popular nonfree encryption software, because users should not
have to choose between privacy and freedom.
Of course, the people writing these programs became interested in the
work, and many features were added to them by various people for the
sake of their own needs and interests. But that is not why the
At the beginning of the GNU Project, I imagined that we would develop
the whole GNU system, then release it as a whole. That is not how it
Since each component of the GNU system was implemented on a Unix
system, each component could run on Unix systems long before a
complete GNU system existed. Some of these programs became popular,
and users began extending them and porting them—to the various
incompatible versions of Unix, and sometimes to other systems as well.
The process made these programs much more powerful, and attracted both
funds and contributors to the GNU Project. But it probably also
delayed completion of a minimal working system by several years, as
GNU developers' time was put into maintaining these ports and adding
features to the existing components, rather than moving on to write
one missing component after another.
The GNU Hurd
By 1990, the GNU system was almost complete; the only major missing
component was the kernel. We had decided to implement our kernel as a
collection of server processes running on top of Mach. Mach is a
microkernel developed at Carnegie Mellon University and then at the
University of Utah; the GNU Hurd is a collection of servers (i.e., a
herd of GNUs) that run on top of Mach, and do the
various jobs of the Unix kernel. The start of development was delayed
as we waited for Mach to be released as free software, as had been
One reason for choosing this design was to avoid what seemed to be the
hardest part of the job: debugging a kernel program without a
source-level debugger to do it with. This part of the job had been
done already, in Mach, and we expected to debug the Hurd servers as
user programs, with GDB. But it took a long time to make that possible,
and the multithreaded servers that send messages to each other have
turned out to be very hard to debug. Making the Hurd work solidly has
stretched on for many years.
The GNU kernel was not originally supposed to be called the Hurd. Its
original name was Alix—named after the woman who was my sweetheart at
the time. She, a Unix system administrator, had pointed out how her
name would fit a common naming pattern for Unix system versions; as a
joke, she told her friends, “Someone should name a kernel after
me.” I said nothing, but decided to surprise her with a kernel
It did not stay that way. Michael (now Thomas) Bushnell, the main
developer of the kernel, preferred the name Hurd, and redefined Alix
to refer to a certain part of the kernel—the part that would trap
system calls and handle them by sending messages to Hurd servers.
Later, Alix and I broke up, and she changed her name;
independently, the Hurd design was changed so that the C library would
send messages directly to servers, and this made the Alix component
disappear from the design.
But before these things happened, a friend of hers came across the
name Alix in the Hurd source code, and mentioned it to her. So
she did have the chance to find a kernel named after her.
Linux and GNU/Linux
The GNU Hurd is not suitable for production use, and we don't know
if it ever will be. The capability-based design has problems that
result directly from the flexibility of the design, and it is not
clear whether solutions exist.
Fortunately, another kernel is available. In 1991, Linus Torvalds
developed a Unix-compatible kernel and called it Linux. It was
proprietary at first, but in 1992, he made it free software; combining
Linux with the not-quite-complete GNU system resulted in a complete
free operating system. (Combining them was a substantial job in
itself, of course.) It is due to Linux that we can actually run a
version of the GNU system today.
We call this system version
GNU/Linux, to express its composition as a combination of the GNU
system with Linux as the kernel. Please don't fall into the practice
of calling the whole system “Linux”, since that means
attributing our work to someone else.
Please give us equal
Challenges in our future
We have proved our ability to develop a broad spectrum of free
software. This does not mean we are invincible and unstoppable.
Several challenges make the future of free software uncertain; meeting
them will require steadfast effort and endurance, sometimes lasting
for years. It will require the kind of determination that people
display when they value their freedom and will not let anyone take it
The following four sections discuss these challenges.
Hardware manufacturers increasingly tend to keep hardware
specifications secret. This makes it difficult to write free drivers
so that Linux and XFree86 can support new hardware. We have complete
free systems today, but we will not have them tomorrow if we cannot
support tomorrow's computers.
There are two ways to cope with this problem. Programmers can do
reverse engineering to figure out how to support the hardware. The
rest of us can choose the hardware that is supported by free software;
as our numbers increase, secrecy of specifications will become a
Reverse engineering is a big job; will we have programmers with
sufficient determination to undertake it? Yes—if we have built up a
strong feeling that free software is a matter of principle, and
nonfree drivers are intolerable. And will large numbers of us spend
extra money, or even a little extra time, so we can use free drivers?
Yes, if the determination to have freedom is widespread.
(2008 note: this issue extends to the BIOS as well. There is a free
BIOS, LibreBoot (a distribution of coreboot); the problem is getting specs for machines so that
LibreBoot can support them without nonfree “blobs”.)
A nonfree library that runs on free operating systems acts as a trap
for free software developers. The library's attractive features are
the bait; if you use the library, you fall into the trap, because your
program cannot usefully be part of a free operating system. (Strictly
speaking, we could include your program, but it
won't run with the library missing.) Even worse, if
a program that uses the proprietary library becomes popular, it can
lure other unsuspecting programmers into the trap.
The first instance of this problem was the Motif toolkit, back in the
80s. Although there were as yet no free operating systems, it was
clear what problem Motif would cause for them later on. The GNU
Project responded in two ways: by asking individual free software
projects to support the free X Toolkit widgets as well as Motif, and
by asking for someone to write a free replacement for Motif. The job
took many years; LessTif, developed by the Hungry Programmers, became
powerful enough to support most Motif applications only in 1997.
Between 1996 and 1998, another nonfree
library, called Qt, was used in a substantial collection of free
software, the desktop
Free GNU/Linux systems were unable to use KDE, because we could not
use the library. However, some commercial distributors of GNU/Linux
systems who were not strict about sticking with free software added
KDE to their systems—producing a system with more capabilities,
but less freedom. The KDE group was actively encouraging more
programmers to use Qt, and millions of new “Linux users”
had never been exposed to the idea that there was a problem in this.
The situation appeared grim.
The free software community responded to the problem in two ways:
GNOME and Harmony.
GNOME, the GNU Network Object Model Environment, is GNU's desktop
project. Started in 1997 by Miguel de Icaza, and developed with the
support of Red Hat Software, GNOME set out to provide similar desktop
facilities, but using free software exclusively. It has technical
advantages as well, such as supporting a variety of languages, not
just C++. But its main purpose was freedom: not to require the use of
any nonfree software.
Harmony is a compatible replacement library, designed to make it
possible to run KDE software without using Qt.
In November 1998, the developers of Qt announced a change of license
which, when carried out, should make Qt free software. There is no
way to be sure, but I think that this was partly due to the
community's firm response to the problem that Qt posed when it was
nonfree. (The new license is inconvenient and inequitable, so it
remains desirable to avoid using Qt.)
[Subsequent note: in September 2000, Qt was rereleased under the GNU GPL,
which essentially solved this problem.]
How will we respond to the next tempting nonfree library? Will the
whole community understand the need to stay out of the trap? Or will
many of us give up freedom for convenience, and produce a major
problem? Our future depends on our philosophy.
The worst threat we face comes from software patents, which can put
algorithms and features off limits to free software for up to twenty
years. The LZW compression algorithm patents were applied for in
1983, and we still cannot release free software to produce proper
[As of 2009 they have expired.] In 1998, a free program to produce
MP3 compressed audio
was removed from distribution under threat of a patent suit.
There are ways to cope with patents: we can search for evidence that a
patent is invalid, and we can look for alternative ways to do a job.
But each of these methods works only sometimes; when both fail, a
patent may force all free software to lack some feature that users
want. What will we do when this happens?
Those of us who value free software for freedom's sake will stay with
free software anyway. We will manage to get work done without the
patented features. But those who value free software because they
expect it to be technically superior are likely to call it a failure
when a patent holds it back. Thus, while it is useful to talk about
the practical effectiveness of the “bazaar” model of
development, and the reliability and power of some free software,
we must not stop there. We must talk about freedom and principle.
The biggest deficiency in our free operating systems is not in the
software—it is the lack of good free manuals that we can include in
our systems. Documentation is an essential part of any software
package; when an important free software package does not come with a
good free manual, that is a major gap. We have many such gaps today.
Free documentation, like free software, is a matter of freedom, not
price. The criterion for a free manual is pretty much the same as for
free software: it is a matter of giving all users certain freedoms.
Redistribution (including commercial sale) must be permitted, online
and on paper, so that the manual can accompany every copy of the
Permission for modification is crucial too. As a general rule, I
don't believe that it is essential for people to have permission to
modify all sorts of articles and books. For example, I don't think
you or I are obliged to give permission to modify articles like this
one, which describe our actions and our views.
But there is a particular reason why the freedom to modify is crucial
for documentation for free software. When people exercise their right
to modify the software, and add or change its features, if they are
conscientious they will change the manual, too—so they can
provide accurate and usable documentation with the modified program.
A nonfree manual, which does not allow programmers to be conscientious
and finish the job, does not fill our community's needs.
Some kinds of limits on how modifications are done pose no problem.
For example, requirements to preserve the original author's copyright
notice, the distribution terms, or the list of authors, are OK. It is
also no problem to require modified versions to include notice that
they were modified, even to have entire sections that may not be
deleted or changed, as long as these sections deal with nontechnical
topics. These kinds of restrictions are not a problem because they
don't stop the conscientious programmer from adapting the manual to
fit the modified program. In other words, they don't block the free
software community from making full use of the manual.
However, it must be possible to modify all the technical content of
the manual, and then distribute the result in all the usual media,
through all the usual channels; otherwise, the restrictions do
obstruct the community, the manual is not free, and we need another
Will free software developers have the awareness and determination to
produce a full spectrum of free manuals? Once again, our future
depends on philosophy.
We must talk about freedom
Estimates today are that there are ten million users of GNU/Linux
systems such as Debian GNU/Linux and Red Hat “Linux”.
Free software has developed such practical advantages that users are
flocking to it for purely practical reasons.
The good consequences of this are evident: more interest in developing
free software, more customers for free software businesses, and more
ability to encourage companies to develop commercial free software
instead of proprietary software products.
But interest in the software is growing faster than awareness of the
philosophy it is based on, and this leads to trouble. Our ability to
meet the challenges and threats described above depends on the will to
stand firm for freedom. To make sure our community has this will, we
need to spread the idea to the new users as they come into the
But we are failing to do so: the efforts to attract new users into our
community are far outstripping the efforts to teach them the civics of
our community. We need to do both, and we need to keep the two
efforts in balance.
Teaching new users about freedom became more difficult in 1998, when a
part of the community decided to stop using the term “free
software” and say “open source software”
Some who favored this term aimed to avoid the confusion of
“free” with “gratis”—a valid goal. Others,
however, aimed to set aside the spirit of principle that had motivated
the free software movement and the GNU Project, and to appeal instead
to executives and business users, many of whom hold an ideology that
places profit above freedom, above community, above principle. Thus,
the rhetoric of “open source” focuses on the potential to
make high-quality, powerful software, but shuns the ideas of freedom,
community, and principle.
The “Linux” magazines are a clear example of this—they
are filled with advertisements for proprietary software that works
with GNU/Linux. When the next Motif or Qt appears, will these
magazines warn programmers to stay away from it, or will they run ads
The support of business can contribute to the community in many ways;
all else being equal, it is useful. But winning their support by
speaking even less about freedom and principle can be disastrous; it
makes the previous imbalance between outreach and civics education
“Free software” and “open source” describe the
same category of software, more or less, but say different things
about the software, and about values. The GNU Project continues to
use the term “free software”, to express the idea that
freedom, not just technology, is important.
Yoda's aphorism (“There is no ‘try’”) sounds
neat, but it doesn't work for me. I have done most of my work while
anxious about whether I could do the job, and unsure that it would be
enough to achieve the goal if I did. But I tried anyway, because
there was no one but me between the enemy and my city. Surprising
myself, I have sometimes succeeded.
Sometimes I failed; some of my cities have fallen. Then I found
another threatened city, and got ready for another battle. Over time,
I've learned to look for threats and put myself between them and my
city, calling on other hackers to come and join me.
Nowadays, often I'm not the only one. It is a relief and a joy when I
see a regiment of hackers digging in to hold the line, and I realize,
this city may survive—for now. But the dangers are greater each
year, and now Microsoft has explicitly targeted our community. We
can't take the future of freedom for granted. Don't take it for
granted! If you want to keep your freedom, you must be prepared to