Names convey meanings; our choice of names determines the
meaning of what we say. An inappropriate name gives people the
wrong idea. A rose by any name would smell as sweet--but if you
call it a pen, people will be rather disappointed when they try to
write with it. And if you call pens "roses," people may not realize
what they are good for. If you call our operating system "Linux,"
that conveys a mistaken idea of the system's origin, history, and
purpose. If you call it "GNU/Linux," that conveys (though not in
detail) an accurate idea.
But this matter for our community? Is it important whether
people know the system's origin, history, and purpose? Yes--because
people who forget history are often condemned to repeat it. The
Free World which has developed around GNU/Linux is not secure; the
problems that we developed GNU to solve are not completely solved,
and they threaten to come back.
When I explain why it's appropriate to call the operating system
"GNU/Linux" rather than "Linux," people sometimes respond this
Granted that the GNU Project deserves credit for this work,
is really worth a fuss when people don't give credit? Isn't the
important thing that the job was done, not who did it? You ought to
relax, take pride in the job well done, and not worry about the
This would be wise advice, if only the situation were like
that--if the job were done and it were time to relax. If only that
were true! But challenges abound, and this is no time to take the
future for granted. Our community's strength rests on commitment to
freedom and cooperation. Using the name GNU/Linux is a way for
people to remind themselves and inform others of these goals.
It is possible to write good free software without thinking of
GNU; much good work has been done in the name of Linux also. But
"Linux" has been associated ever since it was first coined with a
philosophy that does not make a commitment to the freedom to
cooperate. As the name becomes used increasingly by business, we
will have even more trouble making it connect with community
A great challenge to the future of free software comes from the
tendency of the "Linux" distribution companies to add non-free
software to GNU/Linux in the name of convenience and power. All the
major commercial distribution developers do this. Only Red Hat
offers an all-free CD product, and no stores carry it; the other
companies don't even produce such a thing. Most companies do not
clearly identify the non-free packages in their distributions; many
even develop non-free software and add it to the system.
People justify adding non-free software in the name of the
"popularity of Linux"--in effect, valuing popularity above freedom.
Sometimes this is openly admitted. For instance, Wired Magazine
says Robert McMillan, editor of Linux Magazine, "feels that the
move toward open source software should be fueled by technical,
rather than political, decisions." And Caldera's CEO openly urged
users to drop the goal of freedom and work instead for the
"popularity of Linux." (http://www.zdnet.com/filters/printerfriendly/0,6061,2552025-2,00.html.)
Adding non-free software to the GNU/Linux system may increase
the popularity, if by popularity we mean the number of people using
some of GNU/Linux in combination with non-free software. But at the
same time, it implicitly encourages the community to accept
non-free software as a good thing, and forget the goal of freedom.
It is no use driving faster if you can't stay on the road.
When the non-free "add-on" is a library or programming tool, it
can become a trap for free software developers. When they write
free software that depends on the non-free package, their software
cannot be part of a completely free system. Motif and Qt trapped
large amounts of free software in this way in the past, creating
problems whose solutions took years. The Motif problem is still not
entirely solved, since LessTif needs some polishing (please
volunteer!). Sun's non-free Java implementation is now having a
If our community keeps moving in this direction, it could
redirect the future of GNU/Linux into a mosaic of free and non-free
components. Five years from now, we will surely still have plenty
of free software; but if we are not careful, it will hardly be
usable without the non-free software that users expect to find with
it. If this happens, our campaign for freedom will have failed.
If releasing free alternatives were simply a matter of
programming, solving future problems might become easier as our
community's development resources increase. But we face obstacles
which threaten to make this harder: laws that prohibit free
software. As software patents mount up (see petition.eurolinux.org,
and sign it!), and as laws like the DMCA are used to prohibit the
development of free software for important jobs such as viewing a
DVD or listening to a RealAudio stream, we will find ourselves with
no clear way to fight the patented and secret data formats except
to *reject the non-free programs that use them*.
Meeting these challenges will require many different kinds of
effort. But what we need above all, to confront any kind of
challenge, is to remember the goal of freedom to cooperate. We
can't expect a mere desire for powerful, reliable software probably
to motivate people to make great efforts. We need the kind of
determination that people have when they fight for their freedom
and their community, determination to keep on for years and not
In our community, this goal and this determination emanate
mainly from the GNU Project. We're the ones who talk about freedom
and community as something to stand firm for; the organizations
that speak of "Linux" normally don't say this. The magazines about
"Linux" are typically full of ads for non-free software; the
companies that package "Linux" add non-free software to the system;
other companies "support Linux" with non-free applications; the
user groups for "Linux" typically invite salesman to present those
applications. The main place people in our community are likely to
come across the idea of freedom and determination is in the GNU
But when people come across it, will they feel it relates to
People who know they are using a system that came out of the GNU
Project can see a direct relationship between themselves and GNU.
They won't automatically agree with our philosophy, but at least
they will see a reason to think seriously about it. In contrast,
people who consider themselves "Linux users," and believe that the
GNU Project "developed tools which proved to be useful in Linux,"
typically perceive only an indirect relationship between GNU and
themselves. They may just ignore the GNU philosophy when they come
The GNU Project is idealistic, and anyone encouraging idealism
today faces a great obstacle: the prevailing ideology encourages
people to dismiss idealism as "impractical." Our idealism has been
extremely practical: it is the reason we have a free GNU/Linux
operating system. People who love this system ought to know that it
is our idealism made real.
If "the job" really were done, if there were nothing at stake
except credit, perhaps it would be wiser to let the matter drop.
But we are not in that position. To inspire people to do the work
that needs to be done, we need to be recognized for what we have
already done. Please help us, by calling the operating system
Some of the products that appear on this site are from companies from which QuinStreet receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site including, for example, the order in which they appear. QuinStreet does not include all companies or all types of products available in the marketplace.