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A look back at 40 Years of GNU and the Free Software Foundation

It's fading from memory, but if it weren't for GNU and the Free Software Foundation, open-source, and Linux, indeed, most of our technology-driven world wouldn't be here.
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

Would you believe that almost all of the technology you use today is here because of a misbehaving printer? Believe it. 

In the early 1980s, an MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory programmer named Richard M. Stallman (RMS) was having trouble with a notoriously unreliable printer, a Xerox 9700. He wanted to modify its software to notify users of its frequent jams. Great idea, but he couldn't get to the source code to make these changes. This ran counter to the Lab's open ethos. So, he decided that software code should be free. Not free in the sense of free beer but free as in free speech.

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In addition, RMS was vexed that in 1982, MIT bought a DEC PDP-10 computer with Digital's nonfree timesharing system instead of the free Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS)

Angered, RMS wanted users to be free to use, modify, and distribute software. By 1983, this vision had crystallized into a mission: to create a free Unix-like operating system. Thus, GNU, which stands for "GNU's Not Unix," was born.

As RMS wrote at the time, "Starting this Thanksgiving, I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for GNU's Not Unix) and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs, and equipment are greatly needed." 

His dream of writing an operating system never came to fruition. The operating system kernel project, GNU Hurd, remains unfinished. But, inspired by his idea that the proprietary software social system is antisocial, unethical, and simply wrong, he and others started building the GNU software family. From it, numerous other programs would spring.

That said, RMS has sometimes not been truthful about his work. For example, he claims to be the "inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS editor." Actually, the credit for EMACS goes to David A. Moon and Guy L. Steele Jr. as a set of TECO editor macros.

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James Gosling, best known as the parent of the Java language, then took the idea of EMACS, ported it to Unix, and improved its display performance. Then, faced with a choice of "I'm either Mr. EMACS  for life or I graduate," he decided to finish his graduate school work and gave a garage company called Unipress the rights to support and sell EMACS. RMS then, as Gosling tells the story, "freaks" and "just took all of the source code." 

Stallman rewrote the offending code after a lawsuit between IBM and DEC vs. Unipress and many harsh words between Gosling and RMS.  Ironically, it was from this unseemly fight that RMS would create his greatest accomplishment: The GNU Public License (GPL)

RMS realized that under the informal rules of the EMACS community, aka the EMACS Commune, he couldn't control even his own version of EMACS. RMS and his colleagues decided that users could change GNU EMACS's code as long as they published their modifications, and their "derivative" works would also have the same GNU EMACS License. The first steps towards the GNU General Public License (GPL) were being made.

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The radical idea that people were free to change code so long as they shared it as Free Software was open-source's foundation. Now, the idea of free software is far older than Free Software. At computing's start, software was simply shared. As an unexpected side effect of 1969's US vs. IBM antitrust lawsuit, though, mainframe and minicomputers, such as DEC and IBM, stopped bundling free software and started selling proprietary operating systems and programs. By the late 70s and early 80s, proprietary software was becoming the new normal. 

With the help of Mark Fischer and Jerry Cohen, Intellectual Property (IP) lawyers, and John Gilmore, a free software developer and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), RMS realized that the GNU EMACS License was too limited. Fischer had encouraged RMS to use copyright as a basis for the license, while Gilmore had suggested, "You should probably remove "EMACS" from the license and replace it with "SOFTWARE" or something. Soon, we hope, Emacs will not be the biggest part of the GNU system, and the license applies to all of it."

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Taking these ideas, RMS created the first version of GPL: "The copyleft used by the GNU project is made from a combination of a copyright notice and the GNU General Public License. The copyright notice is the usual kind. The General Public License is a copying license which basically says that you have the freedoms we want you to have and that you can't take these freedoms away from anyone else."

These four freedoms are now fundamental to all Free Software and open-source licenses. These are:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish for any purpose.

  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.

  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this, you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The GPL would evolve over the years and grow in importance. GPLv2 is perhaps the most important of its variants since it's Linux's license. The most current version, GPLv3, extended the Free Software concepts to cover digital rights management (DRM) and patents. 

To help support GNU program development, in 1985, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was established to support and promote the GPL and free software movement programmers. The next significant milestone was the development of the GNU C Compiler (GCC) in 1987. GCC was not only free but also outperformed many contemporary compilers, earning it swift adoption and contributing to the project's momentum.

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GCC is widely regarded as GNU and Stallman's crowning accomplishment in programming circles. Michael Tiemann, software programmer and founder of the first open-source company, Cygnus Support, proclaimed GCC a "bombshell. Just as every writer dreams of writing the great American novel, every programmer back in the 1980s talked about writing the great American compiler. Suddenly Stallman had done it. It was very humbling."

There are other GNU programs. These include The GNU Project Debugger (Gdb); the GRUB bootloader, and GNU Common Lisp

One sore point is that RMS never successfully created an operating system. True, by the early '90s, the GNU Project had successfully rewritten much of the Unix system. But, there still remained one glaring exception: an operating system kernel.

Enter Linus Torvalds, a Finnish computer science student who, in 1991, began working on an operating system kernel as a hobby project. This kernel, named Linux, combined with the GNU system, created a fully free operating system. To this day, Stallman and the FSF insist that Linux should be known as  "GNU/Linux." 

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If anything, as one Linux Weekly News (LWN) reader recently put it, "GNU and RMS deserve credit for seeing what was possible and developing gcc, glibc, and a bunch of utilities from scratch. But they have spent 30 out of the last 40 years trying to grab credit for Linux. Linus's very first release in 1991 may have depended heavily on GNU, but GNU software's development for the last 30+ years has depended on and been driven by Linux and its community."

It also hasn't helped GNU that, over the years, RMS has developed a controversial reputation. This came to a head in 2019 when his defense of the late Marvin Minsky, AI pioneer, and associate of notorious billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, led to him resigning from being the president of the FSF. Then, in 2021, RMS returned to the FSF Board in a move which also raised opposition both from within and without the FSF. 

Today, in 2023, RMS is still a member of the FSF Board. The FSF also sponsors the GNU Project, which continues to try to create a complete free software operating system. The FSF also holds the copyrights to many of the GNU programs. 

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As the years went by, some developers and businesses felt that the GPL was too restrictive. This led to alternative licenses, such as the Apache License and the MIT License, which offered more permissive terms. These tensions contributed to the emergence of open source, which many see as a more pragmatic approach to software freedom.

But, while GNU and RMS have faced opposition and had their issues, the fundamental facts are they changed the world. For developers, GNU's legacy remains an enduring testament to the idea that software should empower, not restrict, its users.

To the broader world, their contributions have been profound. Without the GPL, there is no Free Software or open-source software. Indeed, it's almost impossible to imagine what our lives would be like without it. Almost everything you use on a computer today, from the internet to your cloud services to your games, owes a debt to the GNU and its pioneering work. 

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