GNU's not Unix

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. [STALLMAN1983] (Stallman 1983)

This is how Richard Stallman's initial statement for the GNU project starts. The statement was posted to Usenet on September 27 1983. Stallman had been part of the hacker community at MIT's AI lab since the early 1970s, and seen how the community dissolved as its members moved on to assume positions within the computer industry. At MIT Stallman had worked on their operating system, the Incompatible Timesharing System. He had worked in a community where software was shared, and was of the opinion that this sharing should be enforced outside MIT. Stallman's agenda is social. He is of the opinion that software cannot be owned by a single person or entity, but considers software a collective commodity that may be freely modified and shared by anyone.

Stallman's argument is based on the individual's freedom. By copyrighting software and providing it only as executables, individual freedom is compromised. Anyone should be free to read, fix, adapt and improve software, not just operate it. By taking away those rights, users loose freedom to control that part of their lives. Software should be free in the sense that it provides the right to read, fix, adapt and improve upon it. Said with Levy's words: "information wants to be free". Essential to this freedom is to always provide the software's source code for free. As long as the source code is available, free for anyone to do as they please with, freedom is achieved. Stallman call software that provide this freedom "free software". Providing the source code is not sufficient to protect the user's freedom.

To ensure that free software remains free, he created a the GNU General Public License (abbrev. GPL). The GPL is somewhat different from an ordinary end user license agreement. It starts with a large preamble stating the social intentions behind the license, what ends it is to serve. The license's main goal is to ensure that free software stays free even after modification. This is achieved by enforcing the GPL on any software using some or all of a GPLed software projects source code. This way the user's basic freedom is retained, and the amount of free software expands. Stallman also called this model copyleft. As an alternative to existing copyright laws that deprive users of their basic freedoms, copyleft "is a general method for making a program free software and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well" [COPYLEFT](Stallman 19??).

Emacs, the text editor Stallman had been working on since the mid-1970s, was the first program to become a part of GNU. A compiler and debugger for C was next. Stallman, who Steven Levy in his after-word to Hackers portrayed as the last of a dying breed of true hackers, gained increased support for the GNU project. Remaining true to his ideals, Stallman has worked on GNU and software freedom since the initial announcement in 1983, today being the chairman of the Free Software Foundation, a non-profit organization that works for free software.