PQC Notes: I am use Fedora
Linux and the GNU System
Many computer users run a modified version of the GNU system every day, without realizing it. Through a peculiar turn of events, the version of GNU which is widely used today is often called “Linux”, and many of its users are not aware that it is basically the GNU system, developed by the GNU Project.
There really is a Linux, and these people are using it, but it is just a part of the system they use. Linux is the kernel: the program in the system that allocates the machine’s resources to the other programs that you run. The kernel is an essential part of an operating system, but useless by itself; it can only function in the context of a complete operating system. Linux is normally used in combination with the GNU operating system: the whole system is basically GNU with Linux added, or GNU/Linux. All the so-called “Linux” distributions are really distributions of GNU/Linux.
Many users do not understand the difference between the kernel, which is Linux, and the whole system, which they also call “Linux”. The ambiguous use of the name doesn’t help people understand. These users often think that Linus Torvalds developed the whole operating system in 1991, with a bit of help.
Programmers generally know that Linux is a kernel. But since they have generally heard the whole system called “Linux” as well, they often envisage a history that would justify naming the whole system after the kernel. For example, many believe that once Linus Torvalds finished writing Linux, the kernel, its users looked around for other free software to go with it, and found that (for no particular reason) most everything necessary to make a Unix-like system was already available.
What they found was no accident—it was the not-quite-complete GNU system. The available free software added up to a complete system because the GNU Project had been working since 1984 to make one. In the GNU Manifesto we set forth the goal of developing a free Unix-like system, called GNU. The Initial Announcement of the GNU Project also outlines some of the original plans for the GNU system. By the time Linux was started, GNU was almost finished.
Most free software projects have the goal of developing a particular program for a particular job. For example, Linus Torvalds set out to write a Unix-like kernel (Linux); Donald Knuth set out to write a text formatter (TeX); Bob Scheifler set out to develop a window system (the X Window System). It’s natural to measure the contribution of this kind of project by specific programs that came from the project.
If we tried to measure the GNU Project’s contribution in this way, what would we conclude? One CD-ROM vendor found that in their “Linux distribution”, GNU software was the largest single contingent, around 28% of the total source code, and this included some of the essential major components without which there could be no system. Linux itself was about 3%. (The proportions in 2008 are similar: in the “main” repository of gNewSense, Linux is 1.5% and GNU packages are 15%.) So if you were going to pick a name for the system based on who wrote the programs in the system, the most appropriate single choice would be “GNU”.
But that is not the deepest way to consider the question. The GNU Project was not, is not, a project to develop specific software packages. It was not a project to develop a C compiler, although we did that. It was not a project to develop a text editor, although we developed one. The GNU Project set out to develop a complete free Unix-like system: GNU.
Many people have made major contributions to the free software in the system, and they all deserve credit for their software. But the reason it is an integrated system—and not just a collection of useful programs—is because the GNU Project set out to make it one. We made a list of the programs needed to make a complete free system, and we systematically found, wrote, or found people to write everything on the list. We wrote essential but unexciting (1) components because you can’t have a system without them. Some of our system components, the programming tools, became popular on their own among programmers, but we wrote many components that are not tools (2). We even developed a chess game, GNU Chess, because a complete system needs games too.
By the early 90s we had put together the whole system aside from the kernel. We had also started a kernel, the GNU Hurd, which runs on top of Mach. Developing this kernel has been a lot harder than we expected; the GNU Hurd started working reliably in 2001, but it is a long way from being ready for people to use in general.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for the Hurd, because of Linux. Once Torvalds freed Linux in 1992, it fit into the last major gap in the GNU system. People could then combine Linux with the GNU system to make a complete free system — a version of the GNU system which also contained Linux. The GNU/Linux system, in other words.
Making them work well together was not a trivial job. Some GNU components(3) needed substantial change to work with Linux. Integrating a complete system as a distribution that would work “out of the box” was a big job, too. It required addressing the issue of how to install and boot the system—a problem we had not tackled, because we hadn’t yet reached that point. Thus, the people who developed the various system distributions did a lot of essential work. But it was work that, in the nature of things, was surely going to be done by someone.
The GNU Project supports GNU/Linux systems as well as the GNU system. The FSF funded the rewriting of the Linux-related extensions to the GNU C library, so that now they are well integrated, and the newest GNU/Linux systems use the current library release with no changes. The FSF also funded an early stage of the development of Debian GNU/Linux.
Today there are many different variants of the GNU/Linux system (often called “distros”). Most of them include non-free software—their developers follow the philosophy associated with Linux rather than that of GNU. But there are also completely free GNU/Linux distros. The FSF supports computer facilities for gNewSense.
Making a free GNU/Linux distribution is not just a matter of eliminating various non-free programs. Nowadays, the usual version of Linux contains non-free programs too. These programs are intended to be loaded into I/O devices when the system starts, and they are included, as long series of numbers, in the “source code” of Linux. Thus, maintaining free GNU/Linux distributions now entails maintaining a free version of Linux too.
Whether you use GNU/Linux or not, please don’t confuse the public by using the name “Linux” ambiguously. Linux is the kernel, one of the essential major components of the system. The system as a whole is basically the GNU system, with Linux added. When you’re talking about this combination, please call it “GNU/Linux”.
If you want to make a link on “GNU/Linux” for further reference, this page and http://www.gnu.org/gnu/the-gnu-project.html are good choices. If you mention Linux, the kernel, and want to add a link for further reference, http://foldoc.org/linux is a good URL to use.
Aside from GNU, one other project has independently produced a free Unix-like operating system. This system is known as BSD, and it was developed at UC Berkeley. It was non-free in the 80s, but became free in the early 90s. A free operating system that exists today(4) is almost certainly either a variant of the GNU system, or a kind of BSD system.
People sometimes ask whether BSD too is a version of GNU, like GNU/Linux. The BSD developers were inspired to make their code free software by the example of the GNU Project, and explicit appeals from GNU activists helped persuade them, but the code had little overlap with GNU. BSD systems today use some GNU programs, just as the GNU system and its variants use some BSD programs; however, taken as wholes, they are two different systems that evolved separately. The BSD developers did not write a kernel and add it to the GNU system, and a name like GNU/BSD would not fit the situation.(5)
- These unexciting but essential components include the GNU assembler (GAS) and the linker (GLD), both are now part of the GNU Binutils package, GNU tar, and many more.
- For instance, The Bourne Again SHell (BASH), the PostScript interpreter Ghostscript, and the GNU C library are not programming tools. Neither are GNUCash, GNOME, and GNU Chess.
- For instance, the GNU C library.
- Since that was written, a nearly-all-free Windows-like system has been developed, but technically it is not at all like GNU or Unix, so it doesn’t really affect this issue. Most of the kernel of Solaris has been made free, but if you wanted to make a free system out of that, aside from replacing the missing parts of the kernel, you would also need to put it into GNU or BSD.
- On the other hand, in the years since this article was written, the GNU C Library has been ported to several versions of the BSD kernel, which made it straightforward to combine the GNU system with that kernel. Just as with GNU/Linux, these are indeed variants of GNU, and are therefore called, for instance, GNU/kFreeBSD and GNU/kNetBSD depending on the kernel of the system. Ordinary users on typical desktops can hardly distinguish between GNU/Linux and GNU/*BSD.
The Free Software Foundation is the principal organizational sponsor of the GNU Operating System. Support GNU and the FSF by buying manuals and gear, joining the FSF as an associate member, or making a donation, either directly to the FSF or via Flattr.
The GNU Manifesto
The GNU Manifesto (which appears below) was written by Richard Stallman in 1985 to ask for support in developing the GNU operating system. Part of the text was taken from the original announcement of 1983. Through 1987, it was updated in minor ways to account for developments; since then, it seems best to leave it unchanged.
Since that time, we have learned about certain common misunderstandings that different wording could help avoid. Footnotes added since 1993 help clarify these points.
The GNU Project is part of the Free Software Movement, a campaign for freedom for users of software. It is a mistake to associate GNU with the term “open source”—that term was coined in 1998 by people who disagree with the Free Software Movement’s ethical values. They use it to promote an amoral approach to the same field.
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.(1) Several other volunteers are helping me. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.
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 online 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 file names, file version numbers, a crashproof file system, file name 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.
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 GNU away.(2)
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 to help.
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
(Nowadays, for software tasks to work on, see the High Priority Projects list and the GNU Help Wanted list, the general task list for GNU software packages. For other ways to help, see the guide to helping the GNU operating system.)
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, then 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.(3)
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 any support.”
“You have to charge for the program to pay for providing the support.”
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.(4)
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 know how.
Such services could be provided by companies that sell just handholding 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?(5)
“My company needs a proprietary operating system to get a competitive edge.”
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.(6)
“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 destruction.
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 as now.
Restricting copying is not the only basis for business in software. It is the most common basis(7) 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 difficult.
People who have studied the issue of intellectual property rights(8) 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 nonfiction. 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 does a good job; but its defenders are wrong in assuming it always works this way. If the runners forget why the reward is offered 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 can fire one shot”). 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 nonmonetary rewards: fame and appreciation, for example. And creativity is also fun, a reward in itself.
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, handholding and maintenance services could also employ programmers.
People with new ideas could distribute programs as freeware(9), asking for donations from satisfied users, or selling handholding 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.
In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the postscarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.
We have already greatly reduced the amount of work that the whole society must do for its actual productivity, but only a little of this has translated itself into leisure for workers because much nonproductive activity is required to accompany productive activity. The main causes of this are bureaucracy and isometric struggles against competition. Free software will greatly reduce these drains in the area of software production. We must do this, in order for technical gains in productivity to translate into less work for us.
- The wording here was careless. The intention was that nobody would have to pay for permission to use the GNU system. But the words don’t make this clear, and people often interpret them as saying that copies of GNU should always be distributed at little or no charge. That was never the intent; later on, the manifesto mentions the possibility of companies providing the service of distribution for a profit. Subsequently I have learned to distinguish carefully between “free” in the sense of freedom and “free” in the sense of price. Free software is software that users have the freedom to distribute and change. Some users may obtain copies at no charge, while others pay to obtain copies—and if the funds help support improving the software, so much the better. The important thing is that everyone who has a copy has the freedom to cooperate with others in using it.
- The expression “give away” is another indication that I had not yet clearly separated the issue of price from that of freedom. We now recommend avoiding this expression when talking about free software. See “Confusing Words and Phrases” for more explanation.
- This is another place I failed to distinguish carefully between the two different meanings of “free”. The statement as it stands is not false—you can get copies of GNU software at no charge, from your friends or over the net. But it does suggest the wrong idea.
- Several such companies now exist.
- Although it is a charity rather than a company, the Free Software Foundation for 10 years raised most of its funds from its distribution service. You can order things from the FSF to support its work.
- A group of computer companies pooled funds around 1991 to support maintenance of the GNU C Compiler.
- I think I was mistaken in saying that proprietary software was the most common basis for making money in software. It seems that actually the most common business model was and is development of custom software. That does not offer the possibility of collecting rents, so the business has to keep doing real work in order to keep getting income. The custom software business would continue to exist, more or less unchanged, in a free software world. Therefore, I no longer expect that most paid programmers would earn less in a free software world.
- In the 1980s I had not yet realized how confusing it was to speak of “the issue” of “intellectual property”. That term is obviously biased; more subtle is the fact that it lumps together various disparate laws which raise very different issues. Nowadays I urge people to reject the term “intellectual property” entirely, lest it lead others to suppose that those laws form one coherent issue. The way to be clear is to discuss patents, copyrights, and trademarks separately. See further explanation of how this term spreads confusion and bias.
- Subsequently we learned to distinguish between “free software” and “freeware”. The term “freeware” means software you are free to redistribute, but usually you are not free to study and change the source code, so most of it is not free software. See “Confusing Words and Phrases” for more explanation.
What is free software?
The Free Software Definition
The free software definition presents the criteria for whether a particular software program qualifies as free software. From time to time we revise this definition, to clarify it or to resolve questions about subtle issues. See the History section below for a list of changes that affect the definition of free software.
“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software,” borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis.
We campaign for these freedoms because everyone deserves them. With these freedoms, the users (both individually and collectively) control the program and what it does for them. When users don’t control the program, we call it a “nonfree” or “proprietary” program. The nonfree program controls the users, and the developer controls the program; this makes the program an instrument of unjust power.
The four essential freedoms
A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). 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.
A program is free software if it gives users adequately all of these freedoms. Otherwise, it is nonfree. While we can distinguish various nonfree distribution schemes in terms of how far they fall short of being free, we consider them all equally unethical.
In any given scenario, these freedoms must apply to whatever code we plan to make use of, or lead others to make use of. For instance, consider a program A which automatically launches a program B to handle some cases. If we plan to distribute A as it stands, that implies users will need B, so we need to judge whether both A and B are free. However, if we plan to modify A so that it doesn’t use B, only A needs to be free; B is not pertinent to that plan.
“Free software” does not mean “noncommercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important. You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.
The rest of this page clarifies certain points about what makes specific freedoms adequate or not.
The freedom to run the program as you wish
The freedom to run the program means the freedom for any kind of person or organization to use it on any kind of computer system, for any kind of overall job and purpose, without being required to communicate about it with the developer or any other specific entity. In this freedom, it is the user’s purpose that matters, not the developer’s purpose; you as a user are free to run the program for your purposes, and if you distribute it to someone else, she is then free to run it for her purposes, but you are not entitled to impose your purposes on her.
The freedom to run the program as you wish means that you are not forbidden or stopped from making it run. This has nothing to do with what functionality the program has, whether it is technically capable of functioning in any given environment, or whether it is useful for any particular computing activity.
The freedom to study the source code and make changes
In order for freedoms 1 and 3 (the freedom to make changes and the freedom to publish the changed versions) to be meaningful, you must have access to the source code of the program. Therefore, accessibility of source code is a necessary condition for free software. Obfuscated “source code” is not real source code and does not count as source code.
Freedom 1 includes the freedom to use your changed version in place of the original. If the program is delivered in a product designed to run someone else’s modified versions but refuse to run yours — a practice known as “tivoization” or “lockdown”, or (in its practitioners’ perverse terminology) as “secure boot” — freedom 1 becomes an empty pretense rather than a practical reality. These binaries are not free software even if the source code they are compiled from is free.
One important way to modify a program is by merging in available free subroutines and modules. If the program’s license says that you cannot merge in a suitably licensed existing module — for instance, if it requires you to be the copyright holder of any code you add — then the license is too restrictive to qualify as free.
Whether a change constitutes an improvement is a subjective matter. If your right to modify a program is limited, in substance, to changes that someone else considers an improvement, that program is not free.
The freedom to redistribute if you wish: basic requirements
Freedom to distribute (freedoms 2 and 3) means you are free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission to do so.
You should also have the freedom to make modifications and use them privately in your own work or play, without even mentioning that they exist. If you do publish your changes, you should not be required to notify anyone in particular, or in any particular way.
Freedom 3 includes the freedom to release your modified versions as free software. A free license may also permit other ways of releasing them; in other words, it does not have to be a copyleft license. However, a license that requires modified versions to be nonfree does not qualify as a free license.
The freedom to redistribute copies must include binary or executable forms of the program, as well as source code, for both modified and unmodified versions. (Distributing programs in runnable form is necessary for conveniently installable free operating systems.) It is OK if there is no way to produce a binary or executable form for a certain program (since some languages don’t support that feature), but you must have the freedom to redistribute such forms should you find or develop a way to make them.
Certain kinds of rules about the manner of distributing free software are acceptable, when they don’t conflict with the central freedoms. For example, copyleft (very simply stated) is the rule that when redistributing the program, you cannot add restrictions to deny other people the central freedoms. This rule does not conflict with the central freedoms; rather it protects them.
In the GNU project, we use copyleft to protect the four freedoms legally for everyone. We believe there are important reasons why it is better to use copyleft. However, noncopylefted free software is ethical too. See Categories of Free Software for a description of how “free software,” “copylefted software” and other categories of software relate to each other.
Rules about packaging and distribution details
Rules about how to package a modified version are acceptable, if they don’t substantively limit your freedom to release modified versions, or your freedom to make and use modified versions privately. Thus, it is acceptable for the license to require that you change the name of the modified version, remove a logo, or identify your modifications as yours. As long as these requirements are not so burdensome that they effectively hamper you from releasing your changes, they are acceptable; you’re already making other changes to the program, so you won’t have trouble making a few more.
Rules that “if you make your version available in this way, you must make it available in that way also” can be acceptable too, on the same condition. An example of such an acceptable rule is one saying that if you have distributed a modified version and a previous developer asks for a copy of it, you must send one. (Note that such a rule still leaves you the choice of whether to distribute your version at all.) Rules that require release of source code to the users for versions that you put into public use are also acceptable.
A special issue arises when a license requires changing the name by which the program will be invoked from other programs. That effectively hampers you from releasing your changed version so that it can replace the original when invoked by those other programs. This sort of requirement is acceptable only if there’s a suitable aliasing facility that allows you to specify the original program’s name as an alias for the modified version.
Sometimes government export control regulations and trade sanctions can constrain your freedom to distribute copies of programs internationally. Software developers do not have the power to eliminate or override these restrictions, but what they can and must do is refuse to impose them as conditions of use of the program. In this way, the restrictions will not affect activities and people outside the jurisdictions of these governments. Thus, free software licenses must not require obedience to any nontrivial export regulations as a condition of exercising any of the essential freedoms.
Merely mentioning the existence of export regulations, without making them a condition of the license itself, is acceptable since it does not restrict users. If an export regulation is actually trivial for free software, then requiring it as a condition is not an actual problem; however, it is a potential problem, since a later change in export law could make the requirement nontrivial and thus render the software nonfree.
In order for these freedoms to be real, they must be permanent and irrevocable as long as you do nothing wrong; if the developer of the software has the power to revoke the license, or retroactively add restrictions to its terms, without your doing anything wrong to give cause, the software is not free.
A free license may not require compliance with the license of a nonfree program. Thus, for instance, if a license requires you to comply with the licenses of “all the programs you use”, in the case of a user that runs nonfree programs this would require compliance with the licenses of those nonfree programs; that makes the license nonfree.
It is acceptable for a free license to specify which jurisdiction’s law applies, or where litigation must be done, or both.
Most free software licenses are based on copyright, and there are limits on what kinds of requirements can be imposed through copyright. If a copyright-based license respects freedom in the ways described above, it is unlikely to have some other sort of problem that we never anticipated (though this does happen occasionally). However, some free software licenses are based on contracts, and contracts can impose a much larger range of possible restrictions. That means there are many possible ways such a license could be unacceptably restrictive and nonfree.
We can’t possibly list all the ways that might happen. If a contract-based license restricts the user in an unusual way that copyright-based licenses cannot, and which isn’t mentioned here as legitimate, we will have to think about it, and we will probably conclude it is nonfree.
Use the right words when talking about free software
When talking about free software, it is best to avoid using terms like “give away” or “for free,” because those terms imply that the issue is about price, not freedom. Some common terms such as “piracy” embody opinions we hope you won’t endorse. See Confusing Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding for a discussion of these terms. We also have a list of proper translations of “free software” into various languages.
How we interpret these criteria
Finally, note that criteria such as those stated in this free software definition require careful thought for their interpretation. To decide whether a specific software license qualifies as a free software license, we judge it based on these criteria to determine whether it fits their spirit as well as the precise words. If a license includes unconscionable restrictions, we reject it, even if we did not anticipate the issue in these criteria. Sometimes a license requirement raises an issue that calls for extensive thought, including discussions with a lawyer, before we can decide if the requirement is acceptable. When we reach a conclusion about a new issue, we often update these criteria to make it easier to see why certain licenses do or don’t qualify.
Get help with free licenses
If you are interested in whether a specific license qualifies as a free software license, see our list of licenses. If the license you are concerned with is not listed there, you can ask us about it by sending us email at <email@example.com>.
If you are contemplating writing a new license, please contact the Free Software Foundation first by writing to that address. The proliferation of different free software licenses means increased work for users in understanding the licenses; we may be able to help you find an existing free software license that meets your needs.
If that isn’t possible, if you really need a new license, with our help you can ensure that the license really is a free software license and avoid various practical problems.
Software manuals must be free, for the same reasons that software must be free, and because the manuals are in effect part of the software.
The same arguments also make sense for other kinds of works of practical use — that is to say, works that embody useful knowledge, such as educational works and reference works. Wikipedia is the best-known example.
Any kind of work can be free, and the definition of free software has been extended to a definition of free cultural works applicable to any kind of works.
Another group uses the term “open source” to mean something close (but not identical) to “free software”. We prefer the term “free software” because, once you have heard that it refers to freedom rather than price, it calls to mind freedom. The word “open” never refers to freedom.
From time to time we revise this Free Software Definition. Here is the list of substantive changes, along with links to show exactly what was changed.
- Version 1.153: Clarify that freedom to run the program means nothing stops you from making it run.
- Version 1.141: Clarify which code needs to be free.
- Version 1.135: Say each time that freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish.
- Version 1.134: Freedom 0 is not a matter of the program’s functionality.
- Version 1.131: A free license may not require compliance with a nonfree license of another program.
- Version 1.129: State explicitly that choice of law and choice of forum specifications are allowed. (This was always our policy.)
- Version 1.122: An export control requirement is a real problem if the requirement is nontrivial; otherwise it is only a potential problem.
- Version 1.118: Clarification: the issue is limits on your right to modify, not on what modifications you have made. And modifications are not limited to “improvements”
- Version 1.111: Clarify 1.77 by saying that only retroactive restrictions are unacceptable. The copyright holders can always grant additional permission for use of the work by releasing the work in another way in parallel.
- Version 1.105: Reflect, in the brief statement of freedom 1, the point (already stated in version 1.80) that it includes really using your modified version for your computing.
- Version 1.92: Clarify that obfuscated code does not qualify as source code.
- Version 1.90: Clarify that freedom 3 means the right to distribute copies of your own modified or improved version, not a right to participate in someone else’s development project.
- Version 1.89: Freedom 3 includes the right to release modified versions as free software.
- Version 1.80: Freedom 1 must be practical, not just theoretical; i.e., no tivoization.
- Version 1.77: Clarify that all retroactive changes to the license are unacceptable, even if it’s not described as a complete replacement.
- Version 1.74: Four clarifications of points not explicit enough, or stated in some places but not reflected everywhere:
- “Improvements” does not mean the license can substantively limit what kinds of modified versions you can release. Freedom 3 includes distributing modified versions, not just changes.
- The right to merge in existing modules refers to those that are suitably licensed.
- Explicitly state the conclusion of the point about export controls.
- Imposing a license change constitutes revoking the old license.
- Version 1.57: Add “Beyond Software” section.
- Version 1.46: Clarify whose purpose is significant in the freedom to run the program for any purpose.
- Version 1.41: Clarify wording about contract-based licenses.
- Version 1.40: Explain that a free license must allow to you use other available free software to create your modifications.
- Version 1.39: Note that it is acceptable for a license to require you to provide source for versions of the software you put into public use.
- Version 1.31: Note that it is acceptable for a license to require you to identify yourself as the author of modifications. Other minor clarifications throughout the text.
- Version 1.23: Address potential problems related to contract-based licenses.
- Version 1.16: Explain why distribution of binaries is important.
- Version 1.11: Note that a free license may require you to send a copy of versions you distribute to previous developers on request.
There are gaps in the version numbers shown above because there are other changes in this page that do not affect the definition or its interpretations. For instance, the list does not include changes in asides, formatting, spelling, punctuation, or other parts of the page. You can review the complete list of changes to the page through the cvsweb interface.
Categories of free and nonfree software
This diagram, originally by Chao-Kuei and updated by several others since, explains the different categories of software. It’s available as a Scalable Vector Graphic and as an XFig document, under the terms of any of the GNU GPL v2 or later, the GNU FDL v1.2 or later, or the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike v2.0 or later.
Free software is software that comes with permission for anyone to use, copy, and/or distribute, either verbatim or with modifications, either gratis or for a fee. In particular, this means that source code must be available. “If it’s not source, it’s not software.” This is a simplified description; see also the full definition.
If a program is free, then it can potentially be included in a free operating system such as GNU, or free versions of the GNU/Linux system.
There are many different ways to make a program free—many questions of detail, which could be decided in more than one way and still make the program free. Some of the possible variations are described below. For information on specific free software licenses, see the license list page.
Free software is a matter of freedom, not price. But proprietary software companies typically use the term “free software” to refer to price. Sometimes they mean that you can obtain a binary copy at no charge; sometimes they mean that a copy is bundled with a computer that you are buying, and the price includes both. Either way, it has nothing to do with what we mean by free software in the GNU project.
Because of this potential confusion, when a software company says its product is free software, always check the actual distribution terms to see whether users really have all the freedoms that free software implies. Sometimes it really is free software; sometimes it isn’t.
Many languages have two separate words for “free” as in freedom and “free” as in zero price. For example, French has “libre” and “gratuit”. Not so English; there is a word “gratis” that refers unambiguously to price, but no common adjective that refers unambiguously to freedom. So if you are speaking another language, we suggest you translate “free” into your language to make it clearer. See our list of translations of the term “free software” into various other languages.
Free software is often more reliable than nonfree software.
Open source software
The term “open source” software is used by some people to mean more or less the same category as free software. It is not exactly the same class of software: they accept some licenses that we consider too restrictive, and there are free software licenses they have not accepted. However, the differences in extension of the category are small: nearly all free software is open source, and nearly all open source software is free.
We prefer the term “free software” because it refers to freedom—something that the term “open source“ does not do.
Public domain software
Public domain software is software that is not copyrighted. If the source code is in the public domain, that is a special case of noncopylefted free software, which means that some copies or modified versions may not be free at all.
In some cases, an executable program can be in the public domain but the source code is not available. This is not free software, because free software requires accessibility of source code. Meanwhile, most free software is not in the public domain; it is copyrighted, and the copyright holders have legally given permission for everyone to use it in freedom, using a free software license.
Sometimes people use the term “public domain” in a loose fashion to mean “free” or “available gratis.” However, “public domain” is a legal term and means, precisely, “not copyrighted”. For clarity, we recommend using “public domain” for that meaning only, and using other terms to convey the other meanings.
Under the Berne Convention, which most countries have signed, anything written down is automatically copyrighted. This includes programs. Therefore, if you want a program you have written to be in the public domain, you must take some legal steps to disclaim the copyright on it; otherwise, the program is copyrighted.
Copylefted software is free software whose distribution terms ensure that all copies of all versions carry more or less the same distribution terms. This means, for instance, that copyleft licenses generally disallow others to add additional requirements to the software (though a limited set of safe added requirements can be allowed) and require making source code available. This shields the program, and its modified versions, from some of the common ways of making a program proprietary.
Some copyleft licenses, such as GPL version 3, block other means of turning software proprietary, such as tivoization.
In the GNU Project, we copyleft almost all the software we write, because our goal is to give every user the freedoms implied by the term “free software.” See our copyleft article for more explanation of how copyleft works and why we use it.
Copyleft is a general concept; to copyleft an actual program, you need to use a specific set of distribution terms. There are many possible ways to write copyleft distribution terms, so in principle there can be many copyleft free software licenses. However, in actual practice nearly all copylefted software uses the GNU General Public License. Two different copyleft licenses are usually “incompatible”, which means it is illegal to merge the code using one license with the code using the other license; therefore, it is good for the community if people use a single copyleft license.
Noncopylefted free software
Noncopylefted free software comes from the author with permission to redistribute and modify, and also to add additional restrictions to it.
If a program is free but not copylefted, then some copies or modified versions may not be free at all. A software company can compile the program, with or without modifications, and distribute the executable file as a proprietary software product.
The X Window System illustrates this. The X Consortium released X11 with distribution terms that made it noncopylefted free software, and subsequent developers have mostly followed the same practice. A copy which has those distribution terms is free software. However, there are nonfree versions as well, and there are (or at least were) popular workstations and PC graphics boards for which nonfree versions are the only ones that work. If you are using this hardware, X11 is not free software for you. The developers of X11 even made X11 nonfree for a while; they were able to do this because others had contributed their code under the same noncopyleft license.
Lax permissive licensed software
Lax permissive licenses include the X11 license and the two BSD licenses. These licenses permit almost any use of the code, including distributing proprietary binaries with or without changing the source code.
The GNU GPL (General Public License) is one specific set of distribution terms for copylefting a program. The GNU Project uses it as the distribution terms for most GNU software.
To equate free software with GPL-covered software is therefore an error.
The GNU operating system
The GNU operating system is the Unix-like operating system, which is entirely free software, that we in the GNU Project have developed since 1984.
A Unix-like operating system consists of many programs. The GNU system includes all of the official GNU packages. It also includes many other packages, such as the X Window System and TeX, which are not GNU software.
The first test release of the complete GNU system was in 1996. This includes the GNU Hurd, our kernel, developed since 1990. In 2001 the GNU system (including the GNU Hurd) began working fairly reliably, but the Hurd still lacks some important features, so it is not widely used. Meanwhile, the GNU/Linux system, an offshoot of the GNU operating system which uses Linux as the kernel instead of the GNU Hurd, has been a great success since the 90s. As this shows, the GNU system is not a single static set of programs; users and distributors may select different packages according to their needs and desires. The result is still a variant of the GNU system.
Since the purpose of GNU is to be free, every single component in the GNU operating system is free software. They don’t all have to be copylefted, however; any kind of free software is legally suitable to include if it helps meet technical goals.
“GNU programs” is equivalent to GNU software. A program Foo is a GNU program if it is GNU software. We also sometimes say it is a “GNU package”.
GNU software is software that is released under the auspices of the GNU Project. If a program is GNU software, we also say that it is a GNU program or a GNU package. The README or manual of a GNU package should say it is one; also, the Free Software Directory identifies all GNU packages.
Some GNU software was written by staff of the Free Software Foundation, but most GNU software comes from many volunteers. (Some of these volunteers are paid by companies or universities, but they are volunteers for us.) Some contributed software is copyrighted by the Free Software Foundation; some is copyrighted by the contributors who wrote it.
FSF-copyrighted GNU software
The developers of GNU packages can transfer the copyright to the FSF, or they can keep it. The choice is theirs.
If they have transferred the copyright to the FSF, the program is FSF-copyrighted GNU software, and the FSF can enforce its license. If they have kept the copyright, enforcing the license is their responsibility.
The FSF does not accept copyright assignments of software that is not an official GNU package, as a rule.
Nonfree software is any software that is not free. Its use, redistribution or modification is prohibited, or requires you to ask for permission, or is restricted so much that you effectively can’t do it freely.
Proprietary software is another name for nonfree software. In the past we subdivided nonfree software into “semifree software”, which could be modified and redistributed noncommercially, and “proprietary software”, which could not be. But we have dropped that distinction and now use “proprietary software” as synonymous with nonfree software.
The Free Software Foundation follows the rule that we cannot install any proprietary program on our computers except temporarily for the specific purpose of writing a free replacement for that very program. Aside from that, we feel there is no possible excuse for installing a proprietary program.
For example, we felt justified in installing Unix on our computer in the 1980s, because we were using it to write a free replacement for Unix. Nowadays, since free operating systems are available, the excuse is no longer applicable; we do not use any nonfree operating systems, and any new computer we install must run a completely free operating system.
We don’t insist that users of GNU, or contributors to GNU, have to live by this rule. It is a rule we made for ourselves. But we hope you will follow it too, for your freedom’s sake.
The term “freeware” has no clear accepted definition, but it is commonly used for packages which permit redistribution but not modification (and their source code is not available). These packages are not free software, so please don’t use “freeware” to refer to free software.
Shareware is software which comes with permission for people to redistribute copies, but says that anyone who continues to use a copy is required to pay a license fee.
Shareware is not free software, or even semifree. There are two reasons it is not:
- For most shareware, source code is not available; thus, you cannot modify the program at all.
- Shareware does not come with permission to make a copy and install it without paying a license fee, not even for individuals engaging in nonprofit activity. (In practice, people often disregard the distribution terms and do this anyway, but the terms don’t permit it.)
Private or custom software is software developed for one user (typically an organization or company). That user keeps it and uses it, and does not release it to the public either as source code or as binaries.
A private program is free software (in a somewhat trivial sense) if its sole user has the four freedoms. In particular, if the user has full rights to the private program, the program is free. However, if the user distributes copies to others and does not provide the four freedoms with those copies, those copies are not free software.
Free software is a matter of freedom, not access. In general we do not believe it is wrong to develop a program and not release it. There are occasions when a program is so important that one might argue that withholding it from the public is doing wrong to humanity. However, such cases are rare. Most programs are not that important, and declining to release them is not particularly wrong. Thus, there is no conflict between the development of private or custom software and the principles of the free software movement.
Nearly all employment for programmers is in development of custom software; therefore most programming jobs are, or could be, done in a way compatible with the free software movement.
“Commercial” and “proprietary” are not the same! Commercial software is software developed by a business as part of its business. Most commercial software is proprietary, but there is commercial free software, and there is noncommercial nonfree software.
For example, GNU Ada is developed by a company. It is always distributed under the terms of the GNU GPL, and every copy is free software; but its developers sell support contracts. When their salesmen speak to prospective customers, sometimes the customers say, “We would feel safer with a commercial compiler.” The salesmen reply, “GNU Ada is a commercial compiler; it happens to be free software.”
For the GNU Project, the priorities are in the other order: the important thing is that GNU Ada is free software; that it is commercial is just a detail. However, the additional development of GNU Ada that results from its being commercial is definitely beneficial.
Please help spread the awareness that free commercial software is possible. You can do this by making an effort not to say “commercial” when you mean “proprietary.”