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Communications of the ACM

Kode Vicious

GNL Is Not Linux

GNL Is Not Linux, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates

back to top  Dear KV,

I keep seeing the terms "Linux" and "GNU/Linux" online when I am reading about open source software. The terms seem to be mixed up or confused a lot and generate a lot of angry mail and forum threads. When I use a Linux distro am I using Linux or GNU? Does it matter?

What's in a Name?


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the June 2016 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

George V. Neville-Neil's Kode Vicious column "GNL Is Not Linux" (Apr. 2016) would have been better if it had ended with the opening paragraph. Instead Neville-Neil recapped yet again the history of Unix and Linux, then went off the rails, hinting, darkly, at ulterior motives behind GPL, particularly that it is anti-commercial. Red Hat's billions in revenue ($1.79 billion in 2015) should put such an assertion to rest. The Free Software Foundation apparently has no problem with individuals or companies making money from free software.

We do not call houses by the tools we use to build them, as in, say, "... a Craftsman/House, a Makita/House, or a Home Depot/House ..." in Neville-Neil's example. But we do call a house made of bricks a brick house in a nomenclature that causes no confusion. Why then would it be confusing to call a system with a Linux kernel and a user space largely from the GNU project a "GNU/Linux system"? Including "GNU" in the name seems to be a problem only for people with an anti-GNU bias or misunderstanding of GPL, both of which Neville-Neil exhibited through his "supposedly" slight (in paragraph 10) intended to cast aspersions on the Hurd operating system project and the dig (as I read it) at GPLv3 for being more restrictive than GPLv2. However, in fairness, GPLv3 is more restrictive and explicit about not allowing patents to circumvent the freedoms inherent in a license otherwise granted by copyright. As Neville-Neil appeared disdainful of the GPLv2 methods of securing users' freedoms, it is not surprising he would take a negative view of GPLv3.

Neville-Neil also suggested the "GNU/Linux" name is inappropriate, as it reflects the tools used to build the kernel. But as Richard Stallman explained in his 2008 article "Linux and the GNU System" ( to which Neville-Neil linked in his column, a typical Linux distribution includes more code from the GNU project than from the Linux kernel project. Perhaps Neville-Neil should pour himself a less-"strong beverage" and read Stallman's article again. He may find himself much less confused by the "GNU/Linux" name.

Todd M. Lewis
Sanford, NC


Lewis hints at my anti-GPL bias, though I have been quite direct in my opposition to any open source license that restricts the freedoms of those using the code, as is done explicitly by the GPLv2 licenses. Open source means just that open, free to everyone, without strings, caveats, codicils, or clawbacks. As for a strong drink and a reread of anything from Richard Stallman it would have to be a very strong drink indeed to induce me to do it again.

George V. Neville-Neil
Brooklyn, NY

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