Here is Chapter 12, GNU, the GPL and Cygnus, of our ongoing history of free and open source, The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin, by Dr. Peter H. Salus.
Here are the earlier chapters:
The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin
~ by Peter H. Salus
Chapter 12. GNU, the GPL and Cygnus
In September 1983, there was an "announcement." Then, in 1984,
Richard Stallman wrote The GNU Manifesto. 1 In my
opinion, it marks the true beginning of the GNU Project.
For several years, the Manifesto was updated repeatedly in minor ways,
but it remained the primary document through which rms would "ask for
participation and support."
Stallman and his small group of programmers had been working on
rms' stated goal of free versions of all the UNIX applications and
tools. By mid-1984, there were the following:
an Emacs text editor with Lisp for writing editor commands, a source-level
debugger, a yacc-compatible parser generator, a linker, and around 35
utilities. A shell (command interpreter) is nearly completed. A new portable
optimizing C compiler has compiled itself and may be released this year. An
initial kernel exists but many more features are needed to emulate UNIX.
. . We will use TeX as our text formatter, but an nroff is being worked
on. . . .
It was pretty impressive.
I'm not going to quote much more of the Manifesto, but there is
one part, "Why I must write GNU," that has been my "favorite" for twenty years:
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. For years I worked within the
Artificial Intelligence Lab to resist such tendencies and other
inhospitalities, but eventually they had gone too far. I could
not remain in an institution where such things are done for me against
Take this seriously. Just over twenty years ago, rms was talking
about a political and social movement. He was talking about
"solidarity" and "conscience." Stallman
was more interested in "freedom than in having a better program."2
So that I can continue to use computers without dishonor, I have
decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that
I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.
I have resigned from the AI lab to deny MIT any legal excuse to
prevent me from giving GNU away.
Hey! Not a bad outlook! I really like, say, the most recent Tom
Clancy, so I lend it to a friend. This week's cartoon in The
Economist strikes me, so I clip it and send it to a pal.
But, if it's software? Fugeddaboutit!
Stallman also produced the GPL -- the GNU Public License, now the
GNU General Public License.3
The GPL grew out of a real need
for legal documentation.
James Gosling, then a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, wrote a
C-based version of Emacs which used a simplified Lisp, MOCKLISP.
In order to construct GNU Emacs on Lisp, rms freely borrowed
Gosling's innovations. (Stallman had been told by other CMU
developers that Gosling had assured their work on GOSMACS and the
Lisp interpreter would remain available. But Gosling put
GOSMACS under copyright and sold the rights to UniPress. UniPress,
in turn, threatened to sue rms.)
As Sam Williams put it:
Once again, Stallman faced the prospect of building from the
GNU Emacs was released in 1985, but rms had come to realize just how
important it would be for GNU software to have a "legal foundation"
to stand upon. The first version of the GPL was the direct
result. Richard had realized that one needed to actually bestow an
absolute right on users. He had spoken with Mark Fischer, a Boston
IP lawyer, and to Jerry Cohen, another lawyer, but wrote his own license.
Only a few years later, GPL version 2 was released. This was in 1991.
Just about 15 years later, we still use that version, though version 3 is
in the offing.
In the course of reverse-engineering Gosling's interpreter,
Stallman would create a fully functional Lisp interpreter,
rendering the need for Gosling's original interpreter moot.
Nevertheless, the notion of developers selling off software
rights -- indeed, the very notion of developers having
software rights to sell in the first place -- rankled
If you're curious, look at the copyright notice in the README file
of trn [= threaded read news], written by Larry Wall, prior to the
creation of Perl. It says:
Copyright (c) 1985, Larry Wall
You may copy the trn kit in whole or in part as long as
try to make money off it, or pretend that you
In 1991 there was no Web.
In 1991 there was no Linux.
In 1991 KDE, Gnome, Apache, Netscape, hadn't even been thought of.
In 1991 we were still waiting for the Hurd.
But John Gilmore, employee number 5 at Sun Microsystems, was aware
of the importance of GNU and of the GPL. Gilmore was part of the Usenet
community. He was more than just
a reader of net news. In November 1986, Gilmore suggested that
rms "remove 'EMACS' from the license and replace it with
'SOFTWARE' or something." Version 1.0 of the GPL was officially
released in 1989, a year after the release of the GNU debugger,
which carried the 1985 draft (emended innumerable times).
Another individual taken by the GNU philosophy was Michael
Tiemann. In an essay published in 1999, Tiemann looked back
at the Manifesto: "It read like a socialist polemic, but
I saw something different: I saw a business plan in disguise."5
out of the Ph.D. program at Stanford to pursue that plan.
Tiemann wrote the GNU C++ compiler and the first native-code
C++ compiler and debugger. He is now Vice President for
Open Source Affairs at RedHat.
In 1989, Gilmore, Tiemann and David Henkel-Wallace co-founded Cygnus
Solutions, the first "open source" business. (I put "open
source" in quotation marks to differentiate it from free source.
Stallman notes that "open source" stresses the technical side
of the software, excellence through code sharing, whereas "free
software" emphasizes the moral and ethical, technical excellence
being a desirable byproduct.) Gilmore ceased working at Cygnus
in 1995 and stepped down from its Board in 1997.
Cygnus was founded on the theory that "There is great value
in having good people working on software whose precedents will
set the standards of tomorrow. We believed at the beginning
that people would understand this value proposition, and would
value the opportunity to pay us to create high-quality,
open-source programs that would become the de facto
standard of the software world."6
Cygnus began by selling the GNU compiler and debugger as
shrink-wrapped software. Gilmore sent out email telling folks
that he'd be the debugger maintainer and integrator. Gilmore
and Gumby [D.V. Henkel-Wallace] hacked and Tiemann sold contracts.
Cygnus became a success: it demonstrated that money could be made
through service, packaging and distributing source that was otherwise
All the vision of Stallman and the hard work of Gilmore, Gumby and
Tiemann bore fruit in Cygnus' GNUPro Developers Kit, which contained:
- GAS [GNU Assembler]
- LD [GNU Linker]
- Cygwin [UNIX Environment for Windows]
- Insight [GUI for GDB]
By the early 1990s, the world was beginning to change.
1 GNU Manifesto.
2 Interview with Michael Gross, "early 1999"; in The
More Things Change (Harper Collins, 2000).
3 The GPL
4 Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom (O'Reilly, 2002),
5 In Open Sources (O'Reilly, 1999), p. 139.
6 Tiemann in Open Sources.
Dr. Salus is the author of "A Quarter Century of UNIX" and several other books, including "HPL: Little Languages and Tools", "Big Book of Ipv6 Addressing Rfcs", "Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Imperative Programming Languages", "Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and Beyond", and "The Handbook of Programming Languages (HPL): Functional, Concurrent and Logic Programming Languages". There is an interview with him, audio and video,"codebytes: A History of UNIX and UNIX Licences" which was done in 2001 at a USENIX conference. Dr. Salus has served as Executive Director of the USENIX Association.
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