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GNU Project

Related subjects: Computer Programming; Software

Background Information

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The GNU Project is a free software, mass collaboration project, announced in 1983 by Richard Stallman. It initiated the GNU operating system, software development for which began in January 1984. The founding goal of the project was, in the words of its initial announcement, to develop "a sufficient body of free software [...] to get along without any software that is not free."

To make this happen, the GNU Project began working on an operating system called GNU. GNU is a recursive acronym that stands for "GNU's Not Unix". With the Linux kernel being released under the GNU General Public License in 1992, the GNU project no longer relied on any proprietary software to run.

Current work of the GNU Project includes software development, awareness building, and political campaigning.

Philosophy and activism

Although most of the GNU Project's output is technical in nature, it was launched as a social, ethical, and political initiative. As well as producing software and licenses, the GNU Project has published a large number of philosophical writings, the majority of which were authored by Richard Stallman.

Operating system development

The first goal of the GNU project was to make a whole free software operating system exist. Aiming at this target, project collaborators started writing an operating system. The goal was achieved in 1992 without the GNU Project having had to completely finish their planned operating system. A third-party kernel, called Linux, filled the last gap, so a whole free software operating system was finished without the FSF having to finish the kernel it was working on, GNU Hurd. Linux was developed from gcc and other gnu programming tools. Without the gnu programming tools, free software developers would have to pay the cost of using expensive commercially-developed tools and the resulting operating system may have been constrained by patent and/or copyright issues; at the very least, the operating system and its maintainer would be subject to the whims of a commercial software vendor.

Strategic projects

From the mid-1990s onward, with many companies investing in free software development, the Free Software Foundation redirected its funds toward the legal and political support of free software development. Software development from that point on focused on maintaining existing projects, and starting new projects only when there was an acute threat to the free software community; see High Priority Free Software Projects.


One example is the GNOME desktop. This development effort was launched by the GNU Project because another desktop system, KDE, was becoming popular but required users to install certain proprietary software. To prevent people from being tempted to install that proprietary software, the GNU Project simultaneously launched two projects. One was the Harmony toolkit. This was an attempt to make a free software replacement for the proprietary software that KDE depended on. If this project was successful, the problem with KDE would be gone. The second project was GNOME, which tackled the same issue from a different angle. It aimed to make a replacement for KDE, one which didn't have any dependencies on proprietary software. The Harmony project didn't make much progress, but GNOME developed very well. Eventually, the proprietary component that KDE depended on ( Qt) was released as free software.


Another example is Gnash. Gnash is software to play animations which are distributed in the Adobe Flash format. This has been marked as a priority project by GNU because it was seen that many people were installing a free software operating system and using a free software web-browser, but were then also installing the proprietary software plug-in from Adobe.


  • 2001: USENIX Lifetime Achievement Award
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