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This chapter is from the book

Free Software, Open Source, and GNU/Linux

While thousands of individuals have contributed in some form to Ubuntu, the project has succeeded only through the contributions of many thousands more who have indirectly laid the technical, social, and economic groundwork for Ubuntu’s success. While introductions to free software, open source, and GNU/Linux can be found in many other places, no introduction of Ubuntu is complete without a brief discussion of these concepts and the people and history behind them. It is around these concepts and within these communities that Ubuntu was motivated and born. Ultimately, it is through these ideas that it is sustained.

Free Software and GNU

In a series of events that have almost become legend through constant repetition, Richard M. Stallman created the concept of free software in 1983. Stallman grew up with computers in the 1960s and 1970s, when computer users purchased very large and extremely expensive mainframe computers, which were then shared among large numbers of programmers. Software was, for the most part, seen as an add-on to the hardware, and every user had the ability and the right to modify or rewrite the software on his or her computer and to freely share this software. As computers became cheaper and more numerous in the late 1970s, producers of software began to see value in the software itself. Producers of computers began to argue that their software could be copyrighted and was a form of intellectual property much like a music recording, a film, or a book’s text. They began to distribute their software under licenses and in forms that restricted its users’ abilities to use, redistribute, or modify the code. By the early 1980s, restrictive software licenses had become the norm.

Stallman, then a programmer at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, became increasingly concerned with what he saw as a dangerous loss of the freedoms that software users and developers had previously enjoyed. He was concerned with computer users’ ability to be good neighbors and members of what he thought was an ethical and efficient computer-user community. To fight against this negative tide, Stallman articulated a vision for a community that developed liberated code—in his words, “free software.” He defined free software as software that had the following four characteristics—labeled as freedoms 0 through 3 instead of 1 through 4 as a nod to computer programming tradition and a bit of an inside joke:

  • The freedom to run the program for any purpose (freedom 0)
  • The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1)
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2)
  • The freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3)

Access to source code—the human-readable and modifiable blueprints of any piece of software that can be distinguished from the computer-readable version of the code that most software is distributed as—is a prerequisite to freedoms 1 and 3. In addition to releasing this definition of free software, Stallman created a project with the goal of creating a completely free OS to replace the then-popular UNIX. In 1984, Stallman announced this project and called it GNU—also in the form of common programmer humor, a recursive acronym that stands for “GNU’s Not UNIX.”


By the early 1990s, Stallman and a collection of other programmers working on GNU had developed a near-complete OS that could be freely shared. They were, however, missing a final essential piece in the form of a kernel—a complex system command processor that lies at the center of any OS. In 1991, Linus Torvalds wrote an early version of just such a kernel, released it under a free license, and called it Linux. Linus’s kernel was paired with the GNU project’s development tools and OS and with the graphical windowing system called X. With this pairing, a completely free OS was born—free both in terms of price and in Stallman’s terms of freedom.

All systems referred to as Linux today are, in fact, built on the work of this collaboration. Technically, the term Linux refers only to the kernel. Many programmers and contributors to GNU, including Stallman, argue emphatically that the full OS should be referred to as GNU/Linux in order to give credit not only to Linux but also to the GNU project and to highlight GNU’s goals of spreading software freedom—goals not necessarily shared by Linus Torvalds. Many others find this name cumbersome and prefer calling the system simply Linux. Yet others, such as those working on the Ubuntu project, attempt to avoid the controversy altogether by referring to GNU/Linux only by using their own project’s name.

Open Source

Disagreements over labeling did not end with discussions about the naming of the combination of GNU and Linux. In fact, as the list of contributors to GNU and Linux grew, a vibrant world of new free software projects sprouted up, facilitated in part by growing access to the Internet. As this community grew and diversified, a number of people began to notice an unintentional side effect of Stallman’s free software. Because free software was built in an open way, anyone could contribute to software by looking through the code, finding bugs, and fixing them. Because software ended up being examined by larger numbers of programmers, free software was higher in quality, performed better, and offered more features than similar software developed through proprietary development mechanisms. It turned out that in many situations, the development model behind free software led to software that was inherently better than proprietary alternatives.

As the computer and information technology industry began to move into the dot-com boom, one group of free software developers and leaders, spearheaded by two free software developers and advocates—Eric S. Raymond and Bruce Perens—saw the important business proposition offered by a model that could harness volunteer labor or interbusiness collaboration and create intrinsically better software. However, they worried that the term free software was problematic for at least two reasons. First, it was highly ambiguous—the English word free means both gratis, or at no cost (e.g., free as in free beer), and liberated in the sense of freedom (e.g., free as in free speech). Second, there was a feeling, articulated most famously by Raymond, that all this talk of freedom was scaring off the very business executives and decision makers whom the free software movement needed to impress in order to succeed.

To tackle both of these problems, this group coined a new phrase—open source—and created a new organization called the Open Source Initiative. The group set at its core a definition of open source software that overlapped completely and exclusively with both Stallman’s four-part definition of free software and with other community definitions that were also based on Stallman’s.

One useful way to understand the split between the free software and open source movements is to think of it as the opposite of a schism. In religious schisms, churches separate and do not work or worship together because of relatively small differences in belief, interpretation, or motivation. For example, most contemporary forms of Protestant Christianity agree on almost everything but have separated over some small but irreconcilable differences. However, in the case of the free software and open source movements, the two groups have fundamental disagreements about their motivation and beliefs. One group is focused on freedom, while the other is focused on pragmatics. Free software is most accurately described as a social movement, while open source is a development methodology. However, the two groups have no trouble working on projects hand in hand.

In terms of the motivations and goals, open source and free software diverge greatly. Yet in terms of the software, the projects, and the licenses they use, they are completely synonymous. While people who identify with either group see the two movements as being at odds, the Ubuntu project sees no conflict between the two ideologies. People in the Ubuntu project identify with either group and often with both. In this book, we may switch back and forth between the terms as different projects, and many people in the Ubuntu community identify more strongly with one term or the other. For the purposes of this book, though, either term should be read as implying the other unless it is stated otherwise.

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