Welcome to the inaugural edition of What's GNU?,a semi-regular column on the GNU project. The "semi" in semi-regular means that we expect this column to appear in every issue of Linux Journal, but it may not happen occasionally.
The content will be a mixture of "What is the GNU project"---history,
motivation, status of various parts, in other words general things, and
more in-depth looks at the various "major" pieces of GNU
software, e.g. columns on gawk, GNU make ,
Emacs, etc. If possible, I will solicit articles from the primary
authors of the various programs, in which case I will serve more as an
editor. Occasionally, I will devote a column to some other piece of
free software that may not be part of the GNU project, but which nonetheless
is likely to be of interest to the readers of Linux Journal. Many of these
programs are distributed under the same terms as GNU programs.
While I will always strive to present accurate, up to date information,
this column in no way represents the official statements and/or
policies of the Free Software Foundation.
Here are some questions, and the answers that go with them.
Q. What is the GNU Project?
A. The GNU project is an ongoing effort on the part of the Free Software
Foundation (FSF) to create a complete, usable, freely
redistributable software development environment, including
both operating system and utilities. In particular, the FSF has chosen
to create a clone of Unix. GNU source code is copyrighted, using
a license that requires you to distribute or make source code available
when you distribute binaries.
As of this writing, essentially everything but the kernel has been
completed. A future column will list everything that has been done;
hopefully another future column will discuss the status of the GNU
kernel, called the "Hurd".
By the way, GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix". The `G' is pronounced,
it is not silent.
Q. What is the FSF?
A. The Free Software Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation whose
goal is spread the use of free software. To help this goal, it started
the GNU project, described above.
The FSF was founded by Richard Stallman and several others in
approximately 1983. It has a few full-time employees, and a large
number of volunteers working on the GNU project. Contributions to
the FSF are tax-deductible in the US.
The FSF can be reached at:
Free Software Foundation
675 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-3309
Email, general info: email@example.com
Email, to order doc and/or media: firstname.lastname@example.org
To order software and/or documentation in Japan:
FAX (in Japan):
Q. What is the meaning of the word "free"?
A. As used by Richard Stallman and the FSF, the term "free" means that
source code for software is freely available. It does not
mean "no monetary cost". This has often been a source of
confusion among people who are not familiar with the FSF and its goals.
The FSF makes sure that its source code is available by licensing it
under the GNU General Public License, or GPL. FSF source code is
not public domain. It is copyrighted, and distributed
with a license that allows you to modify the code. If you distribute
modified versions of FSF programs (e.g., in binary), the GPL requires you
to distribute your modifications to the code under the same terms as
the original source code. If you never distribute your modifications,
then there is nothing that requires you to distribute your source code,
The GPL will hopefully be the topic of a future column. In the meantime,
if you have a Linux system, you undoubtedly have a copy of the GPL
somewhere, probably in one or more files named COPYING.
Q. Why is GNU relevant to Linux?
A. It is fair to say that without the GNU project, your Linux system would
not be the usable, fairly complete environment that it is today.
Essentially all your utilities are from the GNU project--the C compiler,
make , awk, the shell, the editors, almost all
of the utilities are the GNU versions.
As the GNU developers update the programs, you should be interested in
acquiring and installing these new versions, since they very likely
contain bug fixes, performance enhancements, and/or new features.
Q. Who is Arnold Robbins and why is he qualified to write this
A. I am a professional programmer who has been working with various Unix
systems since 1981. I have been involved with the GNU project as a
volunteer since 1988. The main program I have worked with is
gawk--GNU Awk. I am both a co-author of the program and the
primary author of the accompanying manual that documents the Awk
language and the gawk implementation. I also wrote some
of the smaller miscellanious programs in the Shell Utilities package.
I am also a user (and debugger) of many of the major GNU programs, such as
the C and C++ compilers ([ all of these in cw ], gcc, g++), the debugger
gdb, and the grep and diff suites.
As a developer and user, I interact with many of the other developers
of GNU tools, and in general I attempt to "keep my finger on the pulse"
of the GNU project.
But, as I'm neither a paid employee nor an official of the FSF, anything
I write in this column is my own interpretation of things. If you are in
doubt about something, always contact the FSF directly; never just take my
word for it.
Q. What is the history of the GNU Project?
A. Richard Stallman started the GNU Project in 1983. The first programs
released were Emacs and gdb, the debugger. Since then, the
project has grown. As of this writing, essentially everything but the
middle third of the kernel exists and is fairly stable. Much
documentation needs to be written, and work is proceeding on the kernel.
for a list of tasks that remain
to be initiated.
Q. Why did Richard Stallman start the GNU project?
A. We'll let RMS (as he's known) answer that one himself. Included below is
a document known as the "GNU Manifesto". It was last modified in
1985. This version comes from the Emacs 19.22 distribution.
What's GNU? Gnu's Not Unix!
GNU, which stands for Gnu's Not Unix, is the name for the complete
Unix-compatible software system which I am writing so that I can give
it away free to everyone who can use it. Several other volunteers are
helping me. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are
So far we have an Emacs text editor with Lisp for writing editor
commands, a source level debugger, a yacc-compatible parser generator,
a linker, and around 35 utilities. A shell (command interpreter) is
nearly completed. A new portable optimizing C compiler has compiled
itself and may be released this year. An initial kernel exists but many
more features are needed to emulate Unix. When the kernel and compiler
are finished, it will be possible to distribute a GNU system suitable
for program development. We will use TeX as our text formatter, but an
nroff is being worked on. We will use the free, portable X window system
as well. After this we will add a portable Common Lisp, an Empire game,
a spreadsheet, and hundreds of other things, plus on-line documentation.
We hope to supply, eventually, everything useful that normally comes
with a Unix system, and more.
GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical to
Unix. We will make all improvements that are convenient, based on our
experience with other operating systems. In particular, we plan to
have longer filenames, file version numbers, a crashproof file system,
filename completion perhaps, terminal-independent display support,
and perhaps eventually a Lisp-based window system through which several
Lisp programs and ordinary Unix programs can share a screen. Both C and
Lisp will be available as system programming languages. We will try to
support UUCP, MIT Chaosnet, and Internet protocols for communication.
GNU is aimed initially at machines in the 68000/16000 class with virtual
memory, because they are the easiest machines to make it run on.
The extra effort to make it run on smaller machines will be left to
someone who wants to use it on them.
To avoid horrible confusion, please pronounce the `G' in the word `GNU'
when it is the name of this project.
Who Am I?
I am Richard Stallman, inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS
editor, formerly at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I have worked
extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers, command interpreters, the
Incompatible Timesharing System and the Lisp Machine operating system.
I pioneered terminal-independent display support in ITS. Since then I
have implemented one crashproof file system and two window systems for
Lisp machines, and designed a third window system now being implemented;
this one will be ported to many systems including use in GNU. [Historical
note: The window system project was not completed; GNU now plans to use
the X window system.]
Why I Must Write GNU
I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I
must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to
divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share
with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way.
I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software
license agreement. For years I worked within the Artificial Intelligence
Lab to resist such tendencies and other inhospitalities, but eventually
they had gone too far: I could not remain in an institution where such
things are done for me against my will.
So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have decided
to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able
to get along without any software that is not free. I have resigned
from the AI lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to prevent me from giving
Why GNU Will Be Compatible with Unix
Unix is not my ideal system, but it is not too bad. The essential
features of Unix seem to be good ones, and I think I can fill in what
Unix lacks without spoiling them. And a system compatible with Unix
would be convenient for many other people to adopt.
How GNU Will Be Available
GNU is not in the public domain. Everyone will be permitted to modify
and redistribute GNU, but no distributor will be allowed to restrict its
further redistribution. That is to say, proprietary modifications will
not be allowed. I want to make sure that all versions of GNU remain free.
Why Many Other Programmers Want to Help
I have found many other programmers who are excited about GNU and want
Many programmers are unhappy about the commercialization of system
software. It may enable them to make more money, but it requires them
to feel in conflict with other programmers in general rather than feel
as comrades. The fundamental act of friendship among programmers is the
sharing of programs; marketing arrangements now typically used essentially
forbid programmers to treat others as friends. The purchaser of software
must choose between friendship and obeying the law. Naturally, many
decide that friendship is more important. But those who believe in law
often do not feel at ease with either choice. They become cynical and
think that programming is just a way of making money.
By working on and using GNU rather than proprietary programs, we can
be hospitable to everyone and obey the law. In addition, GNU serves
as an example to inspire and a banner to rally others to join us in
sharing. This can give us a feeling of harmony which is impossible if we
use software that is not free. For about half the programmers I talk to,
this is an important happiness that money cannot replace.
How You Can Contribute
I am asking computer manufacturers for donations of machines and
money. I'm asking individuals for donations of programs and work.
One consequence you can expect if you donate machines is that GNU will
run on them at an early date. The machines should be complete, ready
to use systems, approved for use in a residential area, and not in need
of sophisticated cooling or power.
I have found very many programmers eager to contribute part-time work
for GNU. For most projects, such part-time distributed work would be
very hard to coordinate; the independently-written parts would not work
together. But for the particular task of replacing Unix, this problem
is absent. A complete Unix system contains hundreds of utility programs,
each of which is documented separately. Most interface specifications are
fixed by Unix compatibility. If each contributor can write a compatible
replacement for a single Unix utility, and make it work properly
in place of the original on a Unix system, th these utilities will
work right when put together. Even allowing for Murphy to create a few
unexpected problems, assembling these components will be a feasible task.
(The kernel will require closer communication and will be worked on by
a small, tight group.)
If I get donations of money, I may be able to hire a few people full or
part time. The salary won't be high by programmers' standards, but I'm
looking for people for whom building community spirit is as important
as making money. I view this as a way of enabling dedicated people to
devote their full energies to working on GNU by sparing them the need
to make a living in another way.
Why All Computer Users Will Benefit
Once GNU is written, everyone will be able to obtain good system software
free, just like air.
This means much more than just saving everyone the price of a Unix
license. It means that much wasteful duplication of system programming
effort will be avoided. This effort can go instead into advancing the
state of the art.
Complete system sources will be available to everyone. As a result,
a user who needs changes in the system will always be free to make them
himself, or hire any available programmer or company to make them for him.
Users will no longer be at the mercy of one programmer or company which
owns the sources and is in sole position to make changes.
Schools will be able to provide a much more educational environment
by encouraging all students to study and improve the system code.
Harvard's computer lab used to have the policy that no program could
be installed on the system if its sources were not on public display,
and upheld it by actually refusing to install certain programs. I was
very much inspired by this.
Finally, the overhead of considering who owns the system software and
what one is or is not entitled to do with it will be lifted.
Arrangements to make people pay for using a program, including
licensing of copies, always incur a tremendous cost to society through
the cumbersome mechanisms necessary to figure out how much (that is,
which programs) a person must pay for. And only a police state can
force everyone to obey them. Consider a space station where air must
be manufactured at great cost: charging each breather per liter of air
may be fair, but wearing the metered gas mask all day and all night is
intolerable even if everyone can afford to pay the air bill. And the TV
cameras everywhere to see if you ever take the mask off are outrageous.
It's better to support the air plant with a head tax and chuck the masks.
Copying all or parts of a program is as natural to a programmer as
breathing, and as productive. It ought to be as free.
Some Easily Rebutted Objections to GNU's Goals
"Nobody will use it if it is free, because that means they can't rely on
"You have to charge for the program to pay for providing
If people would rather pay for GNU plus service than get GNU free without
service, a company to provide just service to people who have obtained
GNU free ought to be profitable.
We must distinguish between support in the form of real programming
work and mere handholding. The former is something one cannot rely on
from a software vendor. If your problem is not shared by enough people,
the vendor will tell you to get lost.
If your business needs to be able to rely on support, the only way is
to have all the necessary sources and tools. Then you can hire any
available person to fix your problem; you are not at the mercy of any
individual. With Unix, the price of sources puts this out of consideration
for most businesses. With GNU this will be easy. It is still possible
for there to be no available competent person, but this problem cannot
be blamed on distribution arrangements. GNU does not eliminate all the
world's problems, only some of them.
Meanwhile, the users who know nothing about computers need handholding:
doing things for them which they could easily do themselves but don't
Such services could be provided by companies that sell just hand-holding
and repair service. If it is true that users would rather spend money
and get a product with service, they will also be willing to buy the
service having got the product free. The service companies will compete
in quality and price; users will not be tied to any particular one.
Meanwhile, those of us who don't need the service should be able to use
the program without paying for the service.
"You cannot reach many people without advertising, and you must charge
for the program to support that."
"It's no use advertising a program people can get free."
There are various forms of free or very cheap publicity that can be used
to inform numbers of computer users about something like GNU. But it
may be true that one can reach more microcomputer users with advertising.
If this is really so, a business which advertises the service of copying
and mailing GNU for a fee ought to be successful enough to pay for its
advertising and more. This way, only the users who benefit from the
advertising pay for it.
On the other hand, if many people get GNU from their friends, and such
companies don't succeed, this will show that advertising was not really
necessary to spread GNU. Why is it that free market advocates don't
want to let the free market decide this?
"My company needs a proprietary operating system to get a competitive
GNU will remove operating system software from the realm of
competition. You will not be able to get an edge in this area, but neither
will your competitors be able to get an edge over you. You and they will
compete in other areas, while benefiting mutually in this one. If your
business is selling an operating system, you will not like GNU, but that's
tough on you. If your business is something else, GNU can save you from
being pushed into the expensive business of selling operating systems.
I would like to see GNU development supported by gifts from many
manufacturers and users, reducing the cost to each.
"Don't programmers deserve a reward for their creativity?"
If anything deserves a reward, it is social contribution. Creativity
can be a social contribution, but only in so far as society is free to
use the results. If programmers deserve to be rewarded for creating
innovative programs, by the same token they deserve to be punished if
they restrict the use of these programs.
"Shouldn't a programmer be able to ask for a reward for his creativity?"
There is nothing wrong with wanting pay for work, or seeking to maximize
one's income, as long as one does not use means that are destructive.
But the means customary in the field of software today are based on
Extracting money from users of a program by restricting their use of it
is destructive because the restrictions reduce the amount and the ways
that the program can be used. This reduces the amount of wealth that
humanity derives from the program. When there is a deliberate choice
to restrict, the harmful consequences are deliberate destruction.
The reason a good citizen does not use such destructive means to become
wealthier is that, if everyone did so, we would all become poorer from
the mutual destructiveness. This is Kantian ethics; or, the Golden
Rule. Since I do not like the consequences that result if everyone
hoards information, I am required to consider it wrong for one to do
so. Specifically, the desire to be rewarded for one's creativity does not
justify depriving the world in general of all or part of that creativity.
"Won't programmers starve?"
I could answer that nobody is forced to be a programmer. Most of us
cannot manage to get any money for standing on the street and making
faces. But we are not, as a result, condemned to spend our lives standing
on the street making faces, and starving. We do something else.
But that is the wrong answer because it accepts the questioner's
implicit assumption: that without ownership of software, programmers
cannot possibly be paid a cent. Supposedly it is all or nothing.
The real reason programmers will not starve is that it will still be
possible for them to get paid for programming; just not paid as much
Restricting copying is not the only basis for business in software.
It is the most common basis because it brings in the most money. If it
were prohibited, or rejected by the customer, software business would
move to other bases of organization which are now used less often.
There are always numerous ways to organize any kind of business.
Probably programming will not be as lucrative on the new basis as it
is now. But that is not an argument against the change. It is not
considered an injustice that sales clerks make the salaries that they now
do. If programmers made the same, that would not be an injustice either.
(In practice they would still make considerably more than that.)
"Don't people have a right to control how their creativity is used?"
"Control over the use of one's ideas" really constitutes control over
other people's lives; and it is usually used to make their lives more
People who have studied the issue of intellectual property rights
carefully (such as lawyers) say that there is no intrinsic right to
intellectual property. The kinds of supposed intellectual property
rights that the government recognizes were created by specific acts of
legislation for specific purposes.
For example, the patent system was established to encourage inventors
to disclose the details of their inventions. Its purpose was to help
society rather than to help inventors. At the time, the life span of
17 years for a patent was short compared with the rate of advance of the
state of the art. Since patents are an issue only among manufacturers,
for whom the cost and effort of a license agreement are small compared
with setting up production, the patents often do not do much harm.
They do not obstruct most individuals who use patented products.
The idea of copyright did not exist in ancient times, when authors
frequently copied other authors at length in works of non-fiction.
This practice was useful, and is the only way many authors' works have
survived even in part. The copyright system was created expressly for
the purpose of encouraging authorship. In the domain for which it was
invented--books, which could be copied economically only on a printing
press--it did little harm, and did not obstruct most of the individuals
who read the books.
All intellectual property rights are just licenses granted by society
because it was thought, rightly or wrongly, that society as a whole would
benefit by granting them. But in any particular situation, we have to
ask: are we really better off granting such license? What kind of act
are we licensing a person to do?
The case of programs today is very different from that of books a
hundred years ago. The fact that the easiest way to copy a program is
from one neighbor to another, the fact that a program has both source
code and object code which are distinct, and the fact that a program
is used rather than read and enjoyed, combine to create a situation in
which a person who enforces a copyright is harming society as a whole
both materially and spiritually; in which a person should not do so
regardless of whether the law enables him to.
"Competition makes things get done better."
The paradigm of competition is a race: by rewarding the winner, we
encourage everyone to run faster. When capitalism really works this way,
it des a good job; but its defenders are wrong in assuming it always
works this way. If the runners forget why the reward is offed and become
intent on winning, no matter how, they may find other strategies--such
as, attacking other runners. If the runners get into a fist fight,
they will all finish late.
Proprietary and secret software is the moral equivalent of runners in
a fist fight. Sad to say, the only referee we've got does not seem
to object to fights; he just regulates them ("For every ten yards you
run, you are allowed one kick."). He really ought to break them up,
and penalize runners for even trying to fight.
"Won't everyone stop programming without a monetary incentive?"
Actually, many people will program with absolutely no monetary
incentive. Programming has an irresistible fascination for some
people, usually the people who are best at it. There is no shortage of
professional musicians who keep at it even though they have no hope of
making a living that way.
But really this question, though commonly asked, is not appropriate to
the situation. Pay for programmers will not disappear, only become less.
So the right question is, will anyone program with a reduced monetary
incentive? My experience shows that they will.
For more than ten years, many of the world's best programmers worked
at the Artificial Intelligence Lab for far less money than they could
have had anywhere else. They got many kinds of non-monetary rewards:
fame and appreciation, for example. And creativity is also fun, a reward
Then most of them left when offered a chance to do the same interesting
work for a lot of money.
What the facts show is that people will program for reasons other than
riches; but if given a chance to make a lot of money as well, they will
come to expect and demand it. Low-paying organizations do poorly in
competition with high-paying ones, but they do not have to do badly if
the high-paying ones are banned.
"We need the programmers desperately. If they demand that we stop
helping our neighbors, we have to obey."
You're never so desperate that you have to obey this sort of demand.
Remember: millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute!
"Programmers need to make a living somehow."
In the short run, this is true. However, there are plenty of ways
that programmers could make a living without selling the right to use
a program. This way is customary now because it brings programmers and
businessmen the most money, not because it is the only way to make
a living. It is easy to find other ways if you want to find them.
Here are a number of examples.
A manufacturer introducing a new computer will pay for the porting of
operating systems onto the new hardware.
The sale of teaching, hand-holding and maintenance services could also
People with new ideas could distribute programs as freeware, asking
for donations from satisfied users, or selling hand-holding services.
I have met people who are already working this way successfully.
Users with related needs can form users' groups, and pay dues. A group
would contract with programming companies to write programs that the
group's members would like to use.
All sorts of development can be funded with a Software Tax:
Suppose everyone who buys a computer has to pay x percent of the price
as a software tax. The government gives this to an agency like the NSF
to spend on software development.
But if the computer buyer makes a donation to software development
himself, he can take a credit against the tax. He can donate to the
project of his own choosing--often, chosen because he hopes to use the
results when it is done. He can take a credit for any amount of donation
up to the total tax he had to pay.
The total tax rate could be decided by a vote of the payers of the tax,
weighted according to the amount they will be taxed on.
- the computer-using community supports software development.
- this community decides what level of support is needed.
- users who care which projects their share is spent on
can choose this for themselves.
The author would like to thank Len Tower of the GNU project for his
comments on this column.
Questions and/or comments about this column can be addressed to the author
via postal mail C/O Linux Journal, or via email to