The Free Software Story... and why it matters

M J Ray
AFFS Treasurer
GNUstep Webmaster
Turo Technology LLP

1st October 2003

A talk explaining the origins of the GNU/Linux system and where it fits into the free software history. Previously given at Peterborough LUG in September 2002 and London GLLUG in March 2003.


1 Free as in Freedom

It all starts in the 1970s, with a community of “hackers” at the MIT Artificial Intelligence laboratory who shared software. The software was not covered by copyright. Then, that was normal there but it’s unthinkable to some people now. It was all in the public domain, that is to say, anyone could do anything that they needed or wanted to do with it. Generally, they provided their changes under the same liberal terms, although nothing required them to.

Things changed, though. Some of you may have heard of one of the members of this community: Richard Matthew Stallman, commonly known by his login name, rms. Popular legend has it that rms had a problem with a particular piece of hardware, a laser printer given to the laboratory by Xerox. The printer jammed fairly often, but there was no way of knowing unless you were actually looking at the printer. To solve this problem, rms decided to fix the driver for the printer and make it tell the computer it was connected to, which would in turn tell users on the system to help. But he found an unusual problem. The source code to the driver was not supplied. (I assume that we’re all hackers together here and know that source code is the human-readable program, which is compiled into something that the computer can use. OK?)

Now, most people would probably give up there, but not rms. He found someone at nearby Carnegie Mellon University who had the source code to the driver and went to see him. Again, he found a strange problem: the person with the source code had promised Xerox not to share it with anyone, by way of a “non-disclosure agreement.”

Most people would probably give up there, but not rms. Stallman recognised that these agreements and their new cousins “End User Licence Agreements” represented a threat to the sharing of knowledge that he had known at the AI lab. He started a project to produce an entire computer operating system that was entirely free from these restrictions. Looking around for inspiration, he realised that it would take a long time to do this, so he had better start from a model that was known to be portable between computers and could be implemented in small pieces. He found that the Unix system was a possible model, so in a piece of hacker humour, he named his project GNU - GNU’s Not Unix, a recursive acronym.

2 Free As In Freedom

MIT Free software community

The Xerox printer NDA Problem

Antidote to new EULAs


3 How to neutralise EULAs and NDAs?

Ignore them?

Implement own OS

Hack the copyright law!


4 Freedom and Copyleft

Free software is software that offers its users the following freedoms:-


This includes software under a wide range of licences commonly found on your GNU/Linux computers, including the GNU GPL, LGPL, new BSD licence, Artistic licence, zlib licence and others.

Software that meets these terms is not necessarily “copyleft” software. People can generally take software under the (say) BSD licence and include it into proprietary software, thereby doing the same sort of harm to their users that rms was trying to overcome. Copyleft software uses a “hack” on the legal system to ensure that anyone who publishes an improved version must also give the recipients these freedoms. It uses a special type of “copyright licence” that only permits you to use the software if you agree to that condition and normally requires that you use the same licence for your derived version. As long as you agree to do that, the rights that are normally jealously guarded by the copyright holder are granted to the users too. Copyleft - all rights reversed.

5 GNU, Linux and timeline

So, instead of a 10th birthday of our operating system, we’re actually about to celebrate the 20th soon. What has happened in that time?

September 1983 - Initial announcement of GNU Project

January 1984 - Start of the GNU Project (rms quits MIT), GNU C Compiler work starts

September 1984 - Work starts on the GNU Emacs editor

March 1985 - GNU Manifesto published in Dr Dobbs Journal

October 1985 - Free Software Foundation started to deal with day-to-day matters

1986 - Mention of the TRIX kernel in the GNUsletter

1987 - Negotiations start about the Mach kernel

1990 - Cygnus formed, works on GNU Compiler Collection: first free software business?

1991 - Work starts on the GNU kernel system, Hurd

1991 - First Linux kernel... soon shipped under the GNU GPL

1992 - Distributions of Linux with GNU tools start appearing

1994 - Hurd boots

1997 - GNOME desktop started... GNU Network Object Model Environment

1999 - Hurd-based distribution of GNU 0.2 released

2001 - Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE)

2002 - UK Association For Free Software (AFFS)

2002 - GNU 1.0 CD?

6 Timeline

1983/4 - GNU Project Starts

1984 - GNU Emacs Starts

1985 - GNU Manifesto and FSF formed

1986 - TRIX

1987 - Mach

1990 - Cygnus GCC

1991 - Hurd

1991/2 - Early Linux, GPL, with GNU tools

1994 - Hurd boots!

1997 - GNOME

1999 - GNU 0.2 distribution

2001 - FSFE forms

2002 - AFFS forms


7 MJR’s reasons for being involved

Why does it matter to me? Well, in 1995ish, I was a poor maths student with a Windows 3 computer and I needed to write up a report. I bought a shareware word processor and used it to good effect. It was innovative in a couple of ways and quite nice to use.

Of course, like most paranoid computer users, I kept backups of the programs that I had installed, and regular backups of my data files. Then, some time later, disaster struck! The computer’s disk became corrupted (and FAT is not that great, but that’s another rant) and the only option was to install to a new disk that I was given. Annoyingly, my backup of the word processor had become corrupted, and I couldn’t read the data files. I contacted the company that developed it, but was told that they no longer traded and to contact another company. This other company absolutely refused to sell me a new copy. Online, I could only find the demonstration version, which did not load or save files. In the end, I wrote off my lost data and started using a DOS version of LaTeX, but I didn’t forget.

The other significant event was in 1997ish, when I bought a new computer. It was a second-hand Dell with a (probably illegal) copy of Windows95. I took it home and connected up my modem so that I could surf the web with a more conventional browser than lynx or Arachne. As the computer booted, it detected new hardware and decided to install another mouse driver. At that point, the mouse that had worked before stopped working. I never did figure out how to fix that. Windows95 looked good, but I couldn’t figure out how to get “under the bonnet” and fix things. So I put a GNU/Linux CD into it.

Over time, I became quite careful only to install software that I could fix and I became more skilled at fixing it. That’s why I like free software - it’s been an education and given me some of the skills that I use for work today.

8 Why it matters to me

No lock-outs

Alternative economy

Learning society


9 Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats

Looking at free software, we can try to analyse why it has been successfully gaining users and what challenges face it in the future.

10 Strengths


11 Weaknesses


12 Opportunities


13 Threats



The threats named above are not confined to the United States. The Free Software Foundation doesn’t have the local knowledge, manpower or organisation to fight these threats in every country. So, as these threats have become more common (with such bad laws as the DMCA and EUCD), the Free Software Foundation has set up sister organisations in other territories. Already, there is an FSF India, FSF China and FSF Europe. Others are likely to follow.

In Europe, there are quite a lot of differences between the constituent countries, so the FSF Europe works with associate organisations in each country. In the UK, this is the Association For Free Software, a group set up with the aims to:-

  1. promote and advance the knowledge, development, use and application of Free Software pioneered by the Free Software Foundation and others.
  2. facilitate the exchange of information and views on the use and development of Free Software.
  3. inform upon the subject of Free Software.
  4. encourage internationalisation and localisation of Free Software.
  5. ensure the continued legal existence of Free Software within the United Kingdom.


15 A Request

You can help. In fact, your help is essential. Without it, Free Software will die out in the face of the threats named above. I’m assuming that you come to meetings like this one because you appreciate some of the benefits of freedom, whether it’s the improvements in usability and stability that freedom allows, the cost benefits that a free market in software allows, or the freedom to study the software in details. I’m asking you to give something back.

The AFFS membership fee is just 10 per year (although you may give more) and this money is used for campaigning and lobbying activities in pursuit of its aims. The other very useful thing that you can give is a little of your time to keep people informed, whether it’s your colleagues, elected representatives (in parliaments, councils, or unions) or the world at large. You could make a good start by adding a link from your web sites to the AFFS site and watching it for news. Finally, never stop helping free software, by using it, developing it, and encouraging it to grow.

Association For Free Software

Membership 10/year

Join after the talk