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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2008 Spring 2008 Bulletin The Wikipedia "Naming Controversy" by Joshua Gay

The Wikipedia "Naming Controversy" by Joshua Gay

by Matt Lee Contributions Published on Jul 17, 2008 08:41 PM

On the English version of Wikipedia there is an article that discusses the naming controversy over whether one should call the operating system “GNU/Linux” or “Linux.” In that article, some contend that Linux is the more popular and common name for the system. But when writing an encyclopedia, neither popularity nor commonality are the paramount concerns. Calling the system “GNU/Linux” is more factually accurate, as the GNU project largely forms the base of all distributions of the operating system. For example, GNU packages accounts for 14.79% of the 16.5GB of source packages used to build the Main repository of the gNewSense GNU/Linux distribution (deltad). They also constitute 6.69% of the 27GBs of source packages from which the Universe repository is built. Linux weighs in at about 253MB and accounts for approximately 1.5% of the source code needed to build the Main repository. Furthermore, Linux itself is generally built using GNU libraries and GNU tools, and on many systems depends on them being there.

However, it’s not just a matter of accuracy as it relates to lines of code. It’s about the motivation and goals that got those lines written. By mentioning GNU, you are foregrounding the ethical commitment its hackers have to free software. The foregrounding of these principles is exactly the reason why some would prefer we elide GNU. While the code for the kernel Linux is distributed as free software under the GPL, the term “Linux” when applied to the whole operating system is often used as a branding tactic by companies to reduce the visibility of the ethical aspect of free software.

It should be understood we are not talking about a single operating system but rather a very large class of operating systems, all of which have at their core the Linux kernel and a suite of libraries, programs, and utilities from the GNU system. All distributions of this operating system contain software from outside the GNU project and the Linux kernel. Furthermore, the name of this system is not written in stone — for any given distribution you can feel free to rename it and redistribute it under any name you choose. For example, I can call it the Josh kernel, the Josh Project, and distribute JoshOS. However, I don’t want to name the system after myself — I’d want people know that they are getting GNU.

When the name is GNU, you should hear, “This system exists because of people who care about freedom. Join us, value your freedom, and together we can preserve it.” — This quote was taken from the essay Linux, GNU, and Freedom. We will often refer to Linux in conjunction with GNU, because without it, the GNU Operating System would be unable to run on thousands of different hardware platforms. However, the Linux kernel project itself has not made a full commitment to freedom. They have included proprietary software in their project, so distributions such as blag and gNewSense make sure that there exist versions modified to remove the proprietary blobs.

However, even if Linux were to ship without blobs, GNU/Linux distributions should still mention GNU. The fact is, there exist distributions of GNU/Linux that even contain full proprietary applications. The extent to which they can do this is severely tempered by the significance of the GNU name. The name is inseparable from the ethical motivations behind free software development, so anyone trying to sell you proprietary software is going to do their best to keep that quiet.

Sun Microsystems, a company that has made an increasing commitment to free software over the years will regularly make statements such as, “Sun’s GNU/Linux Offerings,” or “Sun brings a comprehensive systems approach to GNU/Linux-based operating systems.” However, many of Sun’s partners that distribute “leading, branded GNU/Linux operating systems,” suppress the GNU when “branding” their distributions.

Those companies that suppress the GNU name from their distributions are some of the worst offenders in not only distributing proprietary software, but also openly developing, promoting, and encouraging its proliferation. In many ways, these companies are hijacking the free software movement for their own gain, and their suppression of GNU is just one way of distracting people from the fact that they are unwilling to make an outright commitment to free software.

The marketing tactics of such companies often results in people adopting the same language habits, unaware of all that is at play. Even worse, some who know better will actually use the marketing language as a justification for suppressing GNU because it is “common.” I hope that the editors of Wikipedia currently engaged in this debate will stick to Wikipedia’s principles and refrain from engaging in such marketing tactics, and will refer to GNU when talking about the class of operating systems that are built with the GNU Operating System.

I’d like to encourage all of our supporters and readers out there to work hard to combat such tactics by mentioning GNU when you see others avoiding or suppressing it. Let them know that every GNU project is guaranteed to carry freedom to the user — freedom to run it for any purpose, share it with neighbors, improve it for your own purposes, and modify and redistribute your modifications for the benefit of the whole community. As we reach the 25th anniversary of the GNU project, I’d like to thank GNU and the thousands of free software developers and supporters, past and present. And I’d like to encourage everyone else to show their support too, by giving credit where credit is due and saying GNU!

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