Wednesday, 18 March 2015 12:06

Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto is now 30 years old

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Richard Matthew Stallman is a stubborn man. And it is this trait of his above all else that has spawned the wonderful world of free and open source software, a world that was barely hinted at when he wrote the first document about his intentions.

In true leftist style, Stallman (seen above during a visit to Melbourne in 2010) called it the GNU Manifesto. It was published in March 1985 in Dr Dobb's Journal of Software Tools, a venerable technology publication that shut shop in December last year after 38 years of publishing.

But Stallman's manifesto remains. It encapsulated a desire to create a free operating system, for use by all, one that the users could control. This desire grew out of the fact that UNIX source code was not being released after A. T. & T. was broken up and the the anti-trust decree under which it was operating became void. Stallman was not inspired by the path proprietary software development was taking.

He was working at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT when he wrote the manifesto. "GNU, which stands for Gnu's Not Unix, is the name for the complete Unix-compatible software system which I am writing so that I can give it away free to everyone who can use it. Several other volunteers are helping me. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed," was how he began.

Stallman listed several bits and pieces which were ready, and others which were being worked on. But though what he called "an initial kernel" existed, it was the one factor that continued to be missing.

Missing, that is, until Linus Torvalds put up his kernel for download in 1991. Torvalds called it Freax (contracting the words Free and UNIX) but his co-worker, Ari Lemmke, at the Helsinki University of Technology, named the project Linux without consulting Torvalds.

Linux was first published under Torvalds' own licence which forbade commercial activity. Later it adopted Stallman's other great creation, the GNU General Public Licence. It remains under version 2.0 of that licence to this day.

Stallman was clear about his objectives when he wrote the manifesto. "GNU is not in the public domain. Everyone will be permitted to modify and redistribute GNU, but no distributor will be allowed to restrict its further redistribution," he wrote. "That is to say, proprietary modifications will not be allowed. I want to make sure that all versions of GNU remain free."

The history of Linux after that is well known. Distributions — the kernel plus various utilities and applications — began to be released by companies, first by SUSE in Germany and then by Red Hat in the US. Community distruibutions like Debian were born. Today there are more than 300 distributions, with some dying and others starting every month. It is a dynamic environment and Stallman never visualised what a revolution he had unleashed with that one statement of intent.

Three decades from that manifesto, the world of free and open source software has grown to include many hucksters and people who see only the dollar sign when they think of this genre of software. People have even started trying to undermine Torvalds.

Many have already started regarding Stallman as a creature of the past. But we — and by that I mean all those who use or develop free and open source software and benefit from it — owe him a massive debt. He had a dream and it has come to pass.

Today if there is a massive ecosystem of free software and open source software that is spreading its tentacles far and wide, into every gadget in sight, and slowly becoming a part of everyone's lives, then we all owe it to that one stubborn man whom we all know as RMS.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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