A Response to A
War on Two Fronts
Free Software Foundation
published: 13 January 2003
Paul Ceruzzis article claims that advancing technology
made the Microsoft anti-trust trial irrelevant. Actually it
is the details of the settlement that made it irrelevant.
The settlement follows lines I proposed in 1999 (see http://www.gnu.org/
philosophy/microsoft-antitrust.html), but it has been weakened
with loopholes that make it almost null. It requires Microsoft
to disclose interfaces to commercial competitors (but not
to us!), but allows Microsoft to exclude many of these interfaces
(on security grounds), and allows Microsoft to impose a nondisclosure
agreement (which releasing any free software would violate).
It is also limited to Windows, not including programs such
If the settlement had required actual publication of
all the interfaces of Windows and other popular Microsoft
software, it could have made a big differenceit would
have removed an obstacle that stops the GNU operating system
from trying to compete with Microsoft. That would not be irrelevant
The other was the enthusiastic embrace of
a rival operating system, Linux, that was available for free
(in a carefully-defined way, as the paper explains).
The expression For free is misleading when
used to describe free software. We mean free as in freedom,
not gratis; but the expression for free specifically
That also applies to Linux, which since 1995
has been at the center of a
highly-visible movement to provide an alternative operating
system to Microsofts Windows, and to break out of the
Babel of dialects that was threatening Unix after 1990. Linux
is the creation of Linus Torvalds, born in 1969 in Finland,
where his name is pronounced Lee-noose.
[end of page 1]
The operating system that competes with Microsoft Windows
is not Linux, and wasnt started in 1991 or by Linus
Torvalds. When we started it, in 1984, we gave it the name
In 1991, the GNU system was not quite finished: it had one
major gap. What Linus Torvalds wrote in 1991 is a program
that filled the last gap in the system. That program is the
The article focuses on the career of Linus Torvalds in a way
that would make sense if he were the prime mover of the systems
development; this reinforces the widely-held inaccurate picture.
If you want to present the history of the GNU/Linux system,
you need to start in 1983, with the vision of GNUthe
vision of a free society using free software.
In 1991, Linus Torvalds set out to write a version
of UNIX for his IBM-compatible personal computer. (p. 37)
This may have been his intention, but in the event the system
that came out was mostly the one we had been developing for
8 years alreadyplus one major component developed by
The term version of UNIX is misleading also, because
GNU is not a version of UNIX, and neither is GNU/Linux. (Remember,
GNUs Not Unix.) UNIX being proprietary,
we could not legally use any part of it. GNU is a complete
replacement, developed from scratch.
When people refer to the whole system as Linux,
and of course refer to Linus program by itself as Linux,
that ambiguity causes a lot of confusion. This confusion shows
itself in the article here:
Brooks argued that large projects need both a producer
and technical director: roles which in Linux development
are filled by Alan Cox and Torvalds, respectively. (p. 45)
If youre talking about the real Linux, the kernel,
this is accurate. However, Linux cant compete with UNIX
or Windows by itself.
If youre talking about the system many people call
Linux, the GNU/Linux operating system, then this
statement is not accurate. Alan Cox and Linus Torvalds have
never overseen the development of the GNU/Linux system as
a whole. (In fact, nobody does that, because versions of GNU/Linux
are maintained separately by various companies and organization.)
Torvalds and Cox oversee work on Linux, the kernel.
Whether the development of Linux is a vindication
or refutation of Brookss Law is of central importance
to the Linux community.
[end of page 2]
If you mean the community of users of GNU/Linux, I dont
think this issue is particularly important to our community.
The debate about Brookss Law is important to some people
in the open source movement because they claim that the whole
point is developing more powerful and reliable software. We
in the free software movement value freedom and community
most of all, so we are not very concerned with Brookss
Law. What is important about GNU/Linux is that it (1) works
and (2) respects our freedom.
Some advocates of the GPL philosophy coined
the term open source, mainly to distance themselves
from him personally. Their commitment to the GNU [General]
Public License however is as strong as anyones.
This is half true. Some wanted to distance themselves
from me personally, but that was just part of the reason. They
wanted to distance themselves from the ethical stance of the
free software movement, which says that users are morally entitled
to the freedom to share and change software. The open source
movement never says that non-free software is ethically wrong,
only that they do not prefer it. They set out to make the philosophy
corporate-friendly, and figured that the way to do that is to
avoid criticizing usual business practice as wrong.
They may be right that this is the way to be corporate-friendly.
Corporations in the U.S. prefer to use their term, not ours,
which is the main reason it became widely used. (The articles
about open source generally do not hesitate to label
us and our work with that term, so that many people believe
we are part of the open source movement. Thats like calling
Nader a Republican.)
However, the historical fact is that the free software movements
idealism is the main reason why GNU/Linux exists. People with
open source views today develop important free software and
have contributed substantially to our community, but since
they do not regard non-free software as unethical and intolerable,
they would never have taken it upon themselves to work persistently
just to free themselves from it. We idealists did that work.
But once modified, their creators could and
did sell them for a profit. One cannot do that with Linux,
with GNU tools, or with other software under the GPL.
The GNU GPL allows selling copies for a profit. See http://www.gnu.org/
The term GNU tools here will tend to give readers
the wrong idea. GNU is not a collection of tools. GNU is an
operating system. Many GNU packages are tools, and many other
GNU packages are not tools. It happens that some of the tools
are widely known, and people think the system is Linux;
this often leads to the idea that GNU is a collection of tools.
Many popular accounts of the history of Linux
emphasize the rift between Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman,
who are only a few years apart in age but represent different
generations in many ways. Such accounts neglect the fact that
Torvalds completed what Stallman set out to do, and Linux
is protected by the GPL. Stallman ran into difficulties in
developing a UNIX kernel, which was the first thing that Torvalds
[end of page 3]
The GNU Project ran into difficulties developing the GNU
Hurd, and as the leader of the project, I am responsible for
the design decisions that led to them. But I personally never
worked on the GNU Hurd.
Among Linux evangelists are a strong and vocal
group who tout Linux-based programs that offer a graphical
interface like Windows (KDE and GNOME).
GNOME is the GNU desktop. This is a large GNU package
that is not a tool. It is not a Linux-based program, though;
it has nothing particularly to do with Linux, the kernel.
Linux is still accessed by typing at a command
line, like DOS of old.
This is misleading, because it is not the case that
GNU/Linux is always accessed that way. The GNU/Linux system
can be accessed that way or through GNOME.
In any event, what started out as a footnote to
the Microsoft antitrust trial, something that Linus Torvalds
claimed was just a hobby, [and] wont be big and
professional is turning out to be quite interesting.
We shall see. (end of p. 21)
Developing the kernel was just a hobby for Linus, but the
GNU system as a whole was not just a hobby. We developed it
for an explicit mission of social change, and if not for this
mission, nothing like it would exist today.
It is very important for the public to know this. If we succeed
in regaining freedom for computer users, it wont be
by coincidence, it will be because we valued freedom and were
willing to work hard to get there. See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/gpl-american-way.html.
President, Free Software Foundation
[end of page 4]
Richard Stallman, A Response to A
War on Two Fronts, Iterations: An Interdisciplinary
Journal of Software History 2 (January 13, 2003): 1-4.
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