(This is a comment/article/whatever that I wrote on March 31, 1999 for another discussion forum, and posted on my homepage. This is as true now as it was a year and a half ago.)
Why "GNU/Linux" is a Misnomer
There is no GNU/Linux distribution.
The only appropriate use of the term "GNU/Linux" would be for a Linux
distribution released under the auspices of the GNU project. Since no
such distribution actually exists, the term "GNU/Linux" is a complete
Sorry, an FTP archive does not a distribution make. If it did, no distribution
maker would get any attention, since everyone would go to the FTP archives and
get everything from the source. In real life, nobody wants to do that to
create a complete system, and most people lack the skills and determination to
bootstrap a system entirely from scratch this way. (And for those who do,
their systems might be most accurately described as "custom Unix-like systems",
although they would more likely be described as "custom Linux systems" now.)
The avowed goal of the GNU project is to create a complete system which
is like Unix, but not proprietary. The packaging of a distribution is an
essential part of creating a complete system. Without a distribution,
you don't have a complete system; it is just as important as the kernel
itself. A complete system must form a cohesive whole. To point at a jumble
of diverse components and describe them as a "complete system" is delusional
at best. All of Stallman's prevarications aside, the kernel was not
the "last piece" missing from "the GNU system". (If this were true, why
didn't the GNU project release "GNU/Linux" immediately when the Linux kernel
The GNU project has yet to produce a complete system. If and when the
GNU project releases a distribution of the GNU operating system based
on the Linux kernel, it will be fully appropriate to call that
distribution "GNU/Linux". Similarly, a GNU distribution based on the Hurd
kernel would be appropriate to name "GNU/Hurd".
The GNU project has no right to dictate the choice of names for distributions
made by others. Given how obsessed RMS is with issues of freedom, it is quite
ironic that he doesn't afford distribution makers the freedom to name their
distributions, or the marketplace the freedom to choose generic names.
Linux distribution makers have chosen to use the term "Linux" in all their
distribution names for name recognition reasons. This was not done to
unfairly bestow credit on the Linux kernel out of proportion to its
contribution to the entire system, as RMS appears to believe. Rather, this
is entirely an issue of marketing for the complete distribution.
Whether RMS likes it or not, "Linux" is a more marketable name than "GNU" is.
This is partly because RMS cares more about adherence to his ideals than
appeasing the market. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.) This is partly
because the recursive nature of the "GNU's Not Unix" acronym isn't very
appealing to the general public, being both confusing and rather "cutesy"
at the same time.
Mostly,"Linux" wins from a marketing perspective simply because it is
very reminiscent of "Unix", itself a bizarre name that nonetheless carries
considerable name recognition in the marketplace, due to the distinguished
record acquired by Unix systems of all flavors over the years. Since Linux
is "Unix-like", this is a good and appropriate connotation, as well as being
marketable. Marketing is about perception, not fairness.
It is disingenuous in the extreme for RMS to insist that all Linux
distributions should be referred to as "GNU/Linux". By doing so, RMS manages
to present himself as childish and petulant, eroding much of the credibility
he had built up through years of dedication and hard work. It reinforces the
image of an inflexible zealot, which encourages people to discount his
contributions rather than acknowledging them.
Yes, the GNU tools form an essential piece of a typical Linux distribution.
The Linux kernel itself is essential. The X Windows system is essential.
BSD-derived code is essential. The packaging of the distribution itself is
essential. Many components of the system are essential, and none of that
matters when it comes to the name.
The name of a distribution is the exclusive perogative of its creator. Just
as Linus Torvalds has the perogative of naming the Linux kernel despite his
admission that most of the lines of code come from contributions, so does
Red Hat have the perogative of naming their distribution "Red Hat Linux",
regardless of where the greatest contribution may lie.
RMS has no cause to complain. X Windows is not credited in the GNU name
because it has been "adopted" by the GNU project, and is therefore considered
to be implicitly credited. In fact, the GNU project "adopted" as many
components as possible, and only rewrote what was necessary to fill in
What RMS has willfully ignored is that most Linux distributions have "adopted"
many GNU components to fill in the gaps to create a complete system, exactly
as the GNU project "adopted" what was already available. By the same logic,
the GNU project is implicitly credited, as is X Windows. The choice of a name
for the overall distribution remains strictly a marketing decision, not
a recognition of credit due or most significant contributor.
The upshot of all this? The term Linux distribution (or simply
Linux) is entirely appropriate to refer to generic distributions
based on Linux. Not because of the relative importance of the kernel to the
overall system, but because "Linux" is the only term common in the names of
all Linux distributions. Therefore, it is the most appropriate generic
designation, and "GNU/Linux" is the misnomer that should be suppressed.
Copyright 1999 by Deven T. Corzine.
"Simple things should be simple, and complex things should be possible." - Alan Kay