As discussed in the New Yorker, the GNU Manifesto — considered the founding document of the open source movement — turned 30 in March.

The Manifesto was drafted by Richard Stallman in 1985. At the time, he was a software developer in his 20s working at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Stallman was unhappy about the increasing prevalence of proprietary software — software protected by copyright law and usually licensed on a commercial basis by its owners.

In particular, he was unhappy that Unix, one of the first computer operating systems, which was collaboratively developed by A.T. & T. Bell Laboratories and universities around the world, was being licensed without its source code, so that users were unable to see the “building blocks” of the program.

That’s GNU to You

According to 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.

“GNU” is pronounced “guh-NOO.”

Stallman said he created GNU the following reasons:

I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.

Stallman resigned from MIT and went on to found the Free Software Foundation. He remains the Foundation’s president.

Source code is sometimes licensed under GNU GPL terms – a form of “copyleft” rather than copyright.

Code licensed under the GPL may be used, studied, modified, and shared – but only provided that works created using the code must be shared with others on the same basis.

As Stallman wrote,

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. That is to say, proprietary modifications will not be allowed. I want to make sure that all versions of GNU remain free.

Open Source

The “open source” movement emerged in GNU’s wake. As with GNU, users of open source code can look at the source code and modify it. However, unlike with GNU, they are not required to share their developments with the world at large.

Today, when dealing with issues like software licensing, software development agreements, and IP due diligence, the issue of whether software contains GPL or open source code often comes up.