About this Article
Written by: Jeffrey Beupre
Written on: December 4th, 2003
Tags: computer science
Thumbnail by: Aurelio Heckert/
About the Author
In the fall of 2003, Jeffrey Beaupre was a 26 year old full-time Computer Engineering and Computer Science student at the University of Southern California. An 11th grade high school drop out, Jeffrey turned his life around at the age of 21 after developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. With his B.S. at USC, Jeffrey intends to work on defense contracts and continue his education as a Trojan.
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Volume V Issue V > If you GNU what I GNU
The world of computing is a constantly evolving model of technological innovation, financial gain and ruin, and philosophical ideals. The open source revolution has placed these three branches of the industry in the spotlight, shaking the traditional foundations of the technology market. In a world of secrecy, and even deception, some programmers are taking a stand to keep information free. These programmers have created new methods of software licensing to ensure their work will never be hidden from those willing to promote the spread of ideas, designs, and quality of product. The educational, financial, and moral outcome of this movement has impacted the lives of millions of people, many many unaware of the ideas reshaping the world around them. This article is intended to open the public eye to the repercussions and free (open source) software movement.
Imagine for a moment that you had single handedly discovered a cure for cancer. Imagine further that during your search for the cure, you had befriended many cancer patients, perhaps even members of your own family. Immediately you start distributing this cure to your friends and family. Your sense of humanity is so great that you even make your product available to anyone who wants it, asking only compensation for the cost of manufacturing the drug. Then, along comes a large pharmaceutical company with an eye for profit. They want to sell your cure and make a vast fortune. They find out that you are giving this drug away free, acquire a sample, reverse engineer the formula, and legally patent it. The next day all the people you have helped, along with your friends and family, are served with a cease and desist order stating that they must buy this patented formula from the rightful owner. The insult to injury comes when you are diagnosed with cancer, and are required to pay this large company an exorbitant fee for the cure you invented.
"Hogwash," you might say. Well, the scenario presented may appear a bit contrived, but this is exactly what was happening to software engineers who wanted to freely share the computer code they had written with other developers. The stakes may not have been as high as the cure for cancer, but the principle was the same. Today open source software makes high speed internet widely available at a considerably reduced cost. It empowers a wide range of technologies from personal computing to NASA space exploration. If not for an innovative approach to protect this "free" software, the cures for our technological ailments might have been patented and stolen exactly like the hypothetical cure for cancer.
This innovative means to protect the "freedom of information" is known as the GPL (General Public License). The GPL is a way for software developers to protect the code they write from being stolen and patented by anyone else, while still ensuring its free and public use.

A GNU Way of Thinking

Aurelio Heckert/
Figur​e 1: The stylized gnu logo for
So, what is GNU? GNU (pronounced "guh-new") is a recursive acronym: GNU (see Fig. 1) is Not Unix. It is a collection of "open source" software in the form of an operating system, commonly known as Linux. The complete name is actually GNU/Linux ( An operating system is the fundamental software that makes a computer useful. Without an operating system a computer cannot run programs, access networks (like the internet), or use most hardware generally taken for granted, i.e. printers, sound cards, or video cards. "Open source" is a loose term for any piece of software whose code is freely available to be read, used, modified, and distributed. Any software protected by the GPL is, by definition, open source software. But, open source software is not limited to programs protected by the GPL. It may be protected by other licenses that provide similar protections or no license at all.