GNU/Linux naming controversy

FSF artwork of the gnu (GNU mascot) and the penguin Tux (Linux kernel mascot) representing their viewpoint on "GNU/Linux". The GNU General Public License (GPL), which is used by the Linux kernel as well as by most GNU software, armors both characters.
FSF artwork of the gnu (GNU mascot) and the penguin Tux (Linux kernel mascot) representing their viewpoint on "GNU/Linux". The GNU General Public License (GPL), which is used by the Linux kernel as well as by most GNU software, armors both characters.

GNU/Linux is the term promoted by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), its founder Richard Stallman, and its supporters, for operating systems that include the FSF's GNU utilities and the Linux kernel. Debian GNU/Linux uses this term in their name, but most other people simply use the term "Linux" for the whole system.

The FSF argues for the term GNU/Linux because GNU was a longstanding project to develop a free operating system, of which they argue the kernel was only the final small piece. Proponents of the Linux term contend that users and developers have overwhelmingly chosen to keep this shorter name and, since GNU is but one of many contributors to the operating system as a whole, a name change is not justified.

A Linux-based operating system has many components, including both the Linux kernel and software developed by the GNU project, as well as substantial amounts of software such as the X Window System by other authors. The Linux kernel has been reported to be the largest single component, while it is smaller than the total amount of code developed by the GNU project in a typical Linux distribution.[1] Determining exactly what constitutes the "operating system" per se is a matter of continuing debate, however, since there is no single authority to determine the demarcation.




See also: Linux and GNU

The history of Linux is closely tied to that of the GNU operating system. Plans for GNU were made in 1983 and in September of that year they were announced publicly. Software development work began in January 1984. GNU was to be a complete Unix-like operating system composed entirely of free software. By 1991, when the first version of the Linux kernel was released by Linus Torvalds, the GNU mid-level portions of the operating system were almost complete, and the upper level could be supplied by the X Window System, but the lower level (kernel, device drivers, system-level utilities and daemons) was still mostly lacking. The early Linux kernel developers adapted Linux specifically to work with GNU, and later, when the GNU developers learned of Linux, they adapted parts of GNU to work with it. Linux thus filled the last major gap in the GNU operating system. The GNU kernel, GNU Hurd, was still in its infancy. The Hurd followed an ambitious design which proved unexpectedly difficult to implement and has only been marginally usable.

In 1992, the Yggdrasil Linux distribution adopted the name "Linux/GNU/X". The name "GNU/Linux" was first used by Debian in 1994. In GNU's June 1994 Bulletin, Linux is referred to as a "free Unix clone (with many GNU utilities and libraries)". In the January 1995 edition, the term "GNU/Linux" was used instead. In May 1996, Stallman released Emacs 19.31 with the system target "Linux" changed to "Lignux", also suggesting the alternatives of "Linux-based GNU system" or "GNU/Linux system". Stallman later used "GNU/Linux" exclusively.


Cases where "GNU/Linux" is inapplicable

In some embedded systems such as handheld devices, the Linux kernel is used with few or no components of GNU, with alternatives like uClibc and BusyBox replacing the GNU tools, or even a single application running as process 1 on a bare kernel. Everyone, including the FSF, agrees that "GNU/Linux" is not an appropriate name in such circumstances.[2] Almost all Linux-based desktops and servers do use the GNU components, such as glibc (the GNU C Library), coreutils, and bash.[citation needed]


Arguments for "GNU/Linux"

The FSF advocates "GNU/Linux" not simply because of the large number of GNU components used in Linux-based systems or the quantity of GNU source code, but because the goal of the GNU project was specifically to develop a complete operating system:

So if you were going to pick a name for the system based on who wrote the programs in the system, the most appropriate single choice would be GNU. But we don't think that is the right way to consider the question. The GNU Project was not, is not, a project to develop specific software packages. [...] Many people have made major contributions to the free software in the system, and they all deserve credit. But the reason it is an integrated system — and not just a collection of useful programs — is because the GNU Project set out to make it one. We made a list of the programs needed to make a complete free system, and we systematically wrote, or found people to write, everything on the list.[3]

The FSF argues that the name issue is important as a way of crediting both the technical contribution of the GNU project and the idealism of the GNU free-software philosophy (as opposed to the open-source movement):

Calling the system GNU/Linux recognizes the role that our idealism played in building our community, and helps the public recognize the practical importance of these ideals.[2]

Calling this variant of the GNU system "Linux" plays into the hands of people who choose their software based only on technical advantage, not caring whether it respects their freedom.[4]

The ordinary understanding of "operating system" includes both the kernel — the specific subsystem that directly interfaces with the hardware — and the "userland" software that is employed by the user and by application software to control the computer. Moreover, both the name "GNU" and the name "Linux" are intentionally related to the name "Unix", and Unix has always conceptually included the C library and userland tools as well as the kernel. In the 1991 release notes for versions 0.01 to 0.11 of Linux (which was not released under the GNU General Public License until version 0.12[5]), Torvalds wrote:

Sadly, a kernel by itself gets you nowhere. To get a working system you need a shell, compilers, a library etc. These are separate parts and may be under a stricter (or even looser) copyright. Most of the tools used with linux are GNU software and are under the GNU copyleft. These tools aren't in the distribution — ask me (or GNU) for more info.[6]

Torvalds also wrote during the 1992 Tanenbaum-Torvalds debate that, "As has been noted (not only by me), the linux kernel is a miniscule part of a complete system".[7]

The use of the word "Linux" to refer to the kernel, the operating system, and entire distributions, often leads to confusion about the distinctions between the three. (Many of the important GNU packages are a key part of almost every Linux distribution.) Media sources frequently make erroneous statements such as claiming that the entire Linux operating system (rather than simply the kernel) was written from scratch by Torvalds in 1991; that Torvalds directs the development of other components such as graphical interfaces or the GNU tools; or that new releases of the kernel involve a similar degree of user-visible change as do new versions of proprietary operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, where many things besides the kernel change simultaneously.

Because of this confusion, legal threats and public relations campaigns apparently directed against the kernel, such as those launched by the SCO Group or the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (AdTI), have been misinterpreted by many commentators who assume that the whole operating system is being targeted. These organisations have even been accused of deliberately exploiting this confusion:

Generally, SCO's Caldera v IBM Complaint is vague and confusing as to whether the accusations involve the Linux kernel, the GNU/Linux operating system, Linux distributions, Linux applications, or whatever. (Mike Angelo, MozillaQuest Magazine, 2003)[8]

SCO has used "Linux" to mean "all free software," or "all free software constituting a UNIX-like operating system." This confusion, which the Free Software Foundation warned against in the past, is here shown to have the misleading consequences the Foundation has often predicted. (Eben Moglen, 2003)[9]

I guess we can all be glad the world found it so hard to say GNU/Linux, because SCO fell right into the pit, equating Linux, the kernel, with GNU/Linux, the everything, kernel plus the applications. (Pamela Jones, Groklaw, 2003)[10]

In particular, Stallman criticized the [Ken Brown/AdTI] report for capitalizing on common confusion between the Linux kernel, which Stallman says "Linus really wrote," with the full GNU operating system and associated software, which can be and generally is used with the Linux kernel. (Lisa Stapleton, LinuxInsider, 2004)[11]

In response to suggestions that Stallman's renaming efforts stem from egotism or personal pique, RMS has responded that his interest is not in giving credit to himself, but to the GNU Project:

Some people think that it's because I want my ego to be fed. Of course, I'm not asking you to call it "Stallmanix".[12]

Stallman has admitted to irritation, although he believes it to be justified:

If this thread is annoying, please imagine what it is like to see an idealistic project stymied and made ineffective, because people don't usually give it the credit for what it has done. If you're an idealist like me, that can ruin your whole decade.[13]

In response to another common argument (see below), the FSF acknowledges that many people have contributed to GNU/Linux and that a short name cannot credit all of them, but argues that this cannot justify calling the system "Linux":

Since a long name such as GNU/X11/Apache/Linux/TeX/Perl/Python/FreeCiv becomes absurd, at some point you will have to set a threshold and omit the names of the many other secondary contributions. There is no one obvious right place to set the threshold, so wherever you set it, we won't argue against it ... But one name that cannot result from concerns of fairness and giving credit, not for any possible threshold level, is "Linux". It can't be fair to give all the credit to one secondary contribution (Linux) while omitting the principal contribution (GNU).[2]


Arguments for "Linux"

"Linux" is by far the most widespread name,[14] and most people therefore simply adopt this usage, while references to the naming controversy appear only infrequently in mainstream sources. "Linux" has the most historical momentum because it is the name Torvalds has used for the combined system since 1991, while Stallman only began asking people to call the system "GNU/Linux" in the mid 1990s, some time after the "Linux" name had already become popular. "Linux" is shorter and easier to say than "GNU/Linux", particularly given Stallman's suggested pronunciation (in IPA) of [gəˈnu slæʃ 'lɪnəks] or [gəˈnu plʌs 'lɪnəks].

Eric S. Raymond writes (in the "Linux" entry of the Jargon File):

Some people object that the name "Linux" should be used to refer only to the kernel, not the entire operating system. This claim is a proxy for an underlying territorial dispute; people who insist on the term GNU/Linux want the FSF to get most of the credit for Linux because RMS [Stallman] and friends wrote many of its user-level tools. Neither this theory nor the term GNU/Linux has gained more than minority acceptance.

Linus Torvalds has said in the documentary Revolution OS, when asked if the name GNU/Linux was justified:

Well, I think it's justified, but it's justified if you actually make a GNU distribution of Linux ... the same way that I think that "Red Hat Linux" is fine, or "SuSE Linux" or "Debian Linux," because if you actually make your own distribution of Linux, you get to name the thing, but calling Linux in general "GNU Linux" I think is just ridiculous.[15]

An editorial in the Linux Journal expressed the common speculation that Stallman's advocacy of the combined name is an attempt to unfairly ride on the coattails of Linux's fame:

Perhaps RMS is frustrated because Linus got the glory for what RMS wanted to do.[16]

(See above for Stallman's response.) The same Linux Journal article quotes Linus Torvalds as saying:

Umm, this discussion has gone on quite long enough, thank you very much. It doesn't really matter what people call Linux, as long as credit is given where credit is due (on both sides). Personally, I'll very much continue to call it "Linux".[17]

In a similar vein, the debate over the name for the operating system is sometimes characterized as a trivial distraction; e.g. John C. Dvorak wrote:

Unfortunately, the Linux community spends too much of its energy on things such as nomenclature (like the name GNU/Linux versus Linux).[18]

Others have suggested that, regardless of the merits, Stallman's persistence in what sometimes seems a lost cause makes him and GNU look bad. For example, Larry McVoy (author of the proprietary software Bitkeeper, once used to manage Linux kernel development) opined that "claiming credit only makes one look foolish and greedy".[19]

Many users and vendors who prefer the name "Linux" point to the inclusion of non-GNU, non-kernel tools such as the Apache HTTP Server, the X Window System or the K Desktop Environment in end-user operating systems based on the Linux kernel. As stated by Jim Gettys, originator of X:

There are lots of people on this bus; I don't hear a clamor of support that GNU is more essential than many of the other components; can't take a wheel away, and end up with a functional vehicle, or an engine, or the seats. I recommend you be happy we have a bus.[20]

(See the FSF response above, which acknowledges practical limits in credits but draws a different conclusion.)

In mainstream usage, the name "Linux" on its own is often used as the standard example of the concept of software or other content that may be freely modified and redistributed, even if such usages generally do not mention GNU or "free software" specifically.



Although "GNU/Linux" is often pronounced IPA pronunciation: [gəˈnu 'lɪnəks], "GNU Linux", Stallman has advocated explicit pronunciation of the slash to prevent the confusing implication that the Linux kernel itself is a GNU project:

I prefer to pronounce it GNU-slash-Linux, or GNU-plus-Linux. The reason is when you say GNU-Linux it is very much prone to suggest a misleading interpretation. After all, we have GNU Emacs which is the version of Emacs which was developed for GNU. If you say "GNU Linux", people will think it means a version of Linux that was developed for GNU. Which is not the fact.[21]

Given that Stallman pronounces GNU as IPA pronunciation: [gəˈnu],[12] this would make it [gəˈnu slæʃ 'lɪnəks] or [gəˈnu plʌs 'lɪnəks].


See also



  1. David A. Wheeler, "More Than a Gigabuck: Estimating GNU/Linux's Size" (29 July, 2002).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2
  3. Richard Stallman, "Linux and the GNU Project"
  4. Richard Stallman, Linux, GNU, and freedom (2002).
  5. Linus Torvalds, "Release Notes for Linux v0.12" (January 1992).
  6. Linus Torvalds, "Notes for linux release 0.01" (September 1991).
  7. Linus Torvalds, comp.os.minix post (Jan. 31, 1992).
  8. Mike Angelo, "SCO-Caldera v IBM," MozillaQuest Magazine, 28 April 2003)
  9. Eben Moglen, "FSF Statement on SCO v IBM", 27 June 2003.
  10. Pamela Jones, "Moglen: SCO Is Guilty of What the RIAA Calls Stealing", Groklaw (31 October 2003).
  11. Lisa Stapleton, "Stallman: Accusatory Report Deliberately Confuses", LinuxInsider (27 May 2004).
  12. 12.0 12.1 Richard Stallman, "Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation", transcript of speech at New York University in New York, New York (29 May 2001).
  13. Richard Stallman, "Re: GNU/Linux", linux-kernel mailing list (3 April 1999).
  15. Moore, J.T.S. (Produced, Written, and Directed). (2001). Revolution OS [DVD].
  16. "From the Publisher: On the Politics of Freedom", Linux Journal #30 (Oct 1996).
  17. Linus Torvalds, "Lignux, what's the matter with you people?", comp.os.linux.misc newsgroup (3 June 1996).
  18. John C. Dvorak, "Is Linux Your next OS?", PC Magazine (5 March 2002).
  19. Larry McVoy, "Re: GNU/Linux", linux-kernel mailing list (3 April 1999).
  20. Jim Gettys, Re: GNU/Linux, linux-kernel mailing list (5 April 1999).
  21. Jeremy Andrews, Interview: Richard Stallman, (January 2. 2005).

Further reading





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