Richard Stallman — 15 Years of Free Software

By Richard Stallman


Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free
Software Foundation, the author of the GNU General Public License
(GPL), and the original developer of such notable software as gcc
and Emacs.

It is now just over 15 years since the beginning of the Free
Software Movement and the GNU Project. We have come a long way.

In 1984, it was impossible to use a modern computer without
installing a proprietary operating system, which you would have to
obtain under a restrictive license. No one was allowed to share
software freely with fellow computer users, and hardly anyone could
change software to fit his or her own needs. The owners of software
had erected walls to divide us from each other.

The GNU Project was founded to change all that. Its first goal:
to develop a Unix-compatible portable operating system that would
be 100% free software. Not 95% free, not 99.5%, but 100%–so that
users would be free to redistribute the whole system, and free to
change and contribute to any part of it. The name of the system,
GNU, is a recursive acronym meaning “GNU’s Not Unix”–a way of
paying tribute to Unix, while at the same time saying that GNU is
something different. Technically, GNU is like Unix. But unlike
Unix, GNU gives its users freedom.

It took many years of work, by hundreds of programmers, to
develop this operating system. Some were paid by the Free Software
Foundation and by free software companies; most were volunteers. A
few have become famous; most are known mainly within their
profession, by other hackers who use or work on their code. All
together have helped to liberate the potential of the computer
network for all humanity.

In 1991, the last major essential component of a Unix-like
system was developed: Linux, the free kernel written by Linus
Torvalds. Today, the combination of GNU and Linux is used by
millions of people around the world, and its popularity is growing.
This month, we announced release 1.0 of GNOME, the GNU graphical
desktop, which we hope will make the GNU/Linux system as easy to
use as any other operating system.

But our freedom is not permanently assured. The world does not
stand still, and we cannot count on having freedom five years from
now, just because we have it today. Free software faces difficult
challenges and dangers. It will take determined efforts to preserve
our freedom, just as it took to obtain freedom in the first place.
Meanwhile, the operating system is just the beginning–now we need
to add free applications to handle the whole range of jobs that
users want to do.

In future columns, I will be writing about the specific
challenges facing the free software community, and other issues
affecting freedom for computer users, as well as developments
affecting the GNU/Linux operating system.

Copyright 1999 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article is
permitted provided this notice is preserved.

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