Happy Birthday to GNU

Twenty five years ago this month, a man called Richard Stallman announced to the world his intention to create a complete operating system from the ground up. He called it, GNU, which stands for GNU’s Not Unix.

To help celebrate this occasion, I’ve made a video to tell you about GNU, and free software.

Stephen Fry wishing GNU a very Happy Birthday

You can watch the video over at gnu.org, download gNewSense to try it for yourself, and download a copy of the video for posterity.

All the videos are provided in the free Ogg Theora format. Join Play Ogg and support free media formats.

“Stephen has generously donated his time to the cause of free software. His ability to communicate a technological and philosophical movement in terms of the basic principles of sharing and user freedom — ideas that everyone can understand — will introduce a new and broader audience to the benefits of free software,” said Matt Lee, an FSF campaigns manager and writer/producer of the film.

The video is available for download at http://www.gnu.org, and the FSF is encouraging supporters to share it as widely as possible. Many have already posted an image of me linking back to the video on their blogs and web sites. The film will also be distributed as an update to gNewSense users.

This blog was posted in Blessays and General

35 comments on “Happy Birthday to GNU”

  1. mattdriver200 says:

    What happened to posting video’s on YouTube, is that old school now?

  2. Tony Fisk says:

    Does YouTube support Ogg Theora?
    (Why use Ogg Theora? I think that’s fairly obvious, given the occasion!)

  3. fourstar says:

    @mattdriver200: No, but this is GNUTube :)

  4. antifuchs says:

    I’m thrilled that the GNU project turns 25 years this month, and am very happy that you’re joining the celebrations, Stephen (-:

    However, it makes me rather sad that the distribution terms for this video prohibit sharing it on sites such as YouTube or similar sites that would make it easier to make the message heard. The video is distributed under a Creative Commons “Attribution-No Derivative Works” licence, which (at least to my understanding) doesn’t allow transcoding the video to a format that YouTube and other sites will understand.

    I think I do understand what the distribution of the video in OGV-only format is supposed to accomplish (namely, bring people one step closer to a free software multimedia desktop), but it really is just something that gets in the way of broader distribution of a very positive message, one that would benefit from being heard by as many people as possible.

    At any rate, if it should turn out that I am actually allowed to share this video, unchanged except transcoded to another format, do give the word; I have an mp4 waiting to be uploaded to the major video streaming sites.

    No hard feelings,

  5. thaytan says:

    Thanks Stephen! As a Free Software developer, and fan of oh, pretty much everything you’ve ever been involved in, this post just made my day :-)

  6. philsmirnov says:

    Sorry, but You have failed to deliver this video…

  7. JulesLt says:

    Excellent stuff – this is something that has needed a good layman’s guide, or explanation from an outsider, for a long time, and it does make clear that the system is Gnu rather than Linux.

    I do think that as well as this video, gnu.org could put a little more effort into ‘marketing’ gNewSense. As a project, the FSF needs to look at the way that ideas like cruelty-free cosmetics or organic farming/wholefoods crossed over into the mainstream.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that a few screenshots would not kill, or adopting some of the design language used by Apple and MS to sell their systems, or trying to sell Gnu on it’s benefits – ‘Sick of upgrading your machine? Gnu runs great on only 256Mb of memory’ or ‘Unlike some versions of Linux, Gnu is 100% of proprietary additives’ – rather than purely on ethics.

    And yes, I realise you have nothing to do with their website, but just a general observation.

  8. Rob Myers says:

    NC-ND does allow format shifting and transcoding. You just can’t edit or remix it (outside of fair dealing / fair use).

    See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/us/legalcode

    “The above rights may be exercised in all media and formats whether now known or hereafter devised. The above rights include the right to make such modifications as are technically necessary to exercise the rights in other media and formats, but otherwise you have no rights to make Derivative Works.”

    So I’m not a lawyer but I’d say upload away.

    And the video’s website says “Please contact us for further permissions, including derived works.”, so if people want to do more with the video they can always ask the FSF.

  9. Jon T says:

    Sorry to rain on your parade… that “Ogg Theora” (who the f invents these ridiculous names?) video loaded in Java was NOT at all a good advertisement for free and open software.

    Running latest Safari/OSX, streaming frm GNU.org:

    – it was jumpy
    – sound was disconnected with the image
    – hogged memory and resources
    – slooow to open -and to close
    – progress bar had two thirds to run when the video had finished.

    Tell me again why Linux only has .93% penetration..?

    Until these things work BETTTER than what is already available, the world will continue to accept that free is not in fact better.

  10. Great video Stephen! I can think of few better people here in the UK to champion the cause. As many who read your blog understand, free software is simply a result of people’s legitimate right to write code and to share that code. Those who work to undermine the cause of free software are effectively working to undermine both a public good and the natural right possessed by individuals to collaborate (no wonder Microsoft has such a hard time giving FOSS a hard time, it may as well campaign and lobby against The Samaritans, or barn raising, or doing voluntary work…).

    What a pleasant surprise seeing this has been, and it’s heartening to see you on the GNU site!

  11. stefdnk says:

    Well, probably the worst PR I have ever seen.
    First the sound was off, then when it came on after more than 2 mins, it was totally out of sync.

    Not the system you would go for, would you ? ;o)

  12. NeilHoskins says:

    The non-utopian ogg reality is that I click (Firefox on Windows) on the video and get told that I don’t have anything to play it on. I follow the links and download the player, which, I’m told, includes a Mozilla plugin. I go back to the webpage and it still won’t play. So I download the video. I then get a .ogv file on my desktop which apparently has no file associations. I drag it onto my new vlc shortcut and finally it plays.

    OGG is a terrific format, but, like being nice to each other, needs everybody to do it for it to really work properly.

  13. maninalift says:

    Perhaps you guys should try using an open source media player ;)

    mplayer, xine and VLC all play the video properly.

  14. maninalift says:

    I would say that while gNewSense is clearly an appropriate distribution to champion today, it is perhaps not the best distribution to recommend to those who are not familiar with Linux or GNU.

  15. Chris Wood says:

    I don’t understand the more technical aspects, but free software is a liberating and excellent cause. I wish GNU the very best for another 25 years of dumping on Microsoft.

  16. popey says:

    @antifuchs, you might be surprised to hear that you generally don’t need to transcode before uploading to some web video hosting sites. For example http://blip.tv/ supports the Ogg video container formats. In addition in the past I have “fooled” google video by renaming the file to .avi and then uploading. The transcoding stuff at their end magically figured out what to do and did the conversion just fine.

    Nice video Stephen. It’s interesting that we (the Ubuntu UK Podcast) discussed just recently how you new users to use Free Software specifically _without_ mentioning the “freedom” aspect. One reason I don’t like using the Freedom component when talking to potential new users is that a conversation can quickly degenerate into the nuances of “freedom” and not focus on the benefits.

    It’s also difficult for non-techs to understand exactly what is meant by “Freedom” – especially when they have experience of getting Windows for free (illegally) and fail to see the benefit of a Linux based desktop. This is especially apparent when some of their most used software isn’t available, has no equivalent or is not supported under Linux.

    That said, having a video such as this featuring a popular and recognisable celeb who is blessed with some clue can only be a good thing. Even if there’s a Mac in the corner, you recommend gnewsense (which is currently going to be a sub-standard Linux experience for many), and it’s released under a somewhat-less-than-free licence.

  17. just john says:

    I look forward to having the capability to view that video in a couple decades.

  18. quixote says:

    Ubuntu user running Firefox here … funny thing, the video just ran on my system. ;-)

    I do have an old and slow laptop. A few times the video froze while Stephen’s wonderful voice continued. (Why do videos always freeze on bizarre expressions you never see otherwise?) Videos freeze on my machine sometimes with flash, quicktime, and windows media, too. Especially windows media. Odd, that. It must be a terrible format . . . .

    But, all that to one side, I hopped on to say, “Thanks!” for posting that great clip, Stephen. The comparison of open source software to science is spot-on. The costs of secrecy and the benefits of openness are obvious in both cases. It’s just that in science we’ve had an extra few centuries to watch it play out.

  19. doctormo says:

    Very nice video Stephen, worked perfectly on Ubuntu and a great message to send in a clear and concise manner.

    Interestingly gNewSense is derived from Ubuntu isn’t it? I always thought it was Ubuntu with all the proprietary bits and bobs stripped out… which one day should lead them to converge into a single distro once more.

    Alan Pope, I don’t understand what you mean by “less-than-free license” as XKCD says “citation needed”

  20. hannah-mae says:

    To those who can’t view the video/see it as jolty or with the sound & picture out of sync – have you tried downloading something like the VLC player and watching it on there? I couldn’t watch it either at first, but after downloading that I’ve had no problems; the quality is fine.

    Nice video, Stephen. I’m a bit ignorant when it comes to these things, but I’m very interested in what you’ve had to say about operating systems other than Microsoft & Apple. I’ll have to investigate further…

  21. joshsmith says:

    If you are a fan of freedom, and sharing of ideas, how about changing the license on this blog to something more free, such as a Creative Commons license which Wikipedia uses, or GNU’s own GNU free document license?

  22. Jon T says:

    Someone wrote: “Perhaps you guys should try using an open source media player mplayer, xine and VLC all play the video properly.”

    Yep, that’s it, Open stuff means it only plays with other Open stuff, and you have to download it first, then open it in the appropria….ah sorry, bored with that game.

    You have to laugh.

  23. sth says:

    Stephen, as you probably know, Apple OS X runs a lot of GNU software in one way or another; but you may not know that Apple has thoughtfully uploaded all their changes to http://opensource.apple.com. Apple even go as far as to allow you to download the mach kernel (Darwin) that they use in OS X.

    As always, it’s always good to watch/listen to your videos or podcasts.

  24. Ron says:

    Don’t know why folks find it difficult to view the videos.
    I downloaded a couple and played both from a machine running MS-DOS 6.20 using the DOS port of MPlayer.
    I don’t do Windows. :)

  25. popey says:

    @doctormo the video itself is under a less than fully permissive license. You can see this for yourself by clicking the link above and reading the resulting words. It’s released under cc-nd 3.0 which is less permissive than (say) the GNU GPL. Just an observation.

  26. Ralph Corderoy says:

    Some kind so has uploaded the video to youtube so it’s easier for some people to view. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dcxtEKShXA

  27. flywheel says:


    As an old fan and eager user of Open Source software – I’m quite thrilled.
    As usual the message is presented in an elegant, concise, philosophical way, understandable for most people and with a hint of great humor.
    A moment to cherish.

    @Jon T : “Yep, that’s it, Open stuff means it only plays with other Open stuff, and you have to download it first, then open it in the appropria….ah sorry, bored with that game.”

    Well – actually no it does not only play with other open stuff. An old time favorite – VLC is often used by MS-Windows users as as supplement for MS-WMP, since it is capable of playing difficult ASF/WMV/WMA/AVI files. But no it isn’t bundled with MS-Windows, since it is not an MS application, you have to fetch and install it yourself.

    Live long and prosper…

  28. james. says:

    While GNU has provided us with so many useful things, limiting one’s use of applications to only those with a free licence is something that to me makes no sense at all.

    When it comes to applications that are used for a career (for example Photoshop for Photographers, Dreamweaver for Web Designers, Final Cut for Editors, etc.) it is essential that they work quickly, smoothly and with any problems being solved – and the only way this can be done is by paying developers and designers to build these applications, which can only be done to a constant standard and quality if the applications are proprietary and people pay for them.

    The thought of editing photographs using GIMP on some clunky home built computer running Linux/GNU makes me feel so very glad I spend the extra £’s on an Apple MacBook and a Photoshop CS3 licence.

    Having said that there are some brilliant open source applications such as Firefox and VLC. So while GNU and Open Source are absolutely brilliant, without proprietary software computers would be a lot less user-friendly and a lot less reliable.

  29. BKB says:

    Hi Stephen,

    You might like to know that Linus Torvalds pronounces his name like “Lynn-us”, not “Line-us”, and he pronounces Linux like “Lynn-Ux”.


    I think it’s worth getting it right.

  30. howlingmadhowie says:

    james: the question is, what is the most i can do with a computer and retain my freedom to be a good member of my community? to share, to help and to contribute. if a task requires proprietary software there are some of us who would rather not do that task.

  31. vikramkrishnan says:

    A good reason in my view to use free software (I know this sounds really arrogant) is that frequently people who work on free software are researchers from reputed universities such as MIT, Stanford, CalTech etc. This automatically leads to very high standards. Whereas Microsoft hires people on the basis of the fact that they are replaceable, so that the company as a whole does not suffer in the case they are removed or resign. (Standard industry procedure)

  32. trojjer says:

    So Stephen Fry likes free software and hates Microsoft, but is seemingly “big on Apple”. Oh well. At least Apple does have a lot of “F/LOSS” code in its products, when it suits them… I wish he’d clarify though, as to the nature of the primary OS he’s running on that MacBook Air — and whether or not it’s dual-booting.

    Continuing the theme of pointing out the “non-free” approach to media that is contradictory to the message of the video itself, note the following section of the terms of use for this site:

    “You are permitted to download and print content from the Website solely for your own internal business purposes and/or personal use. The Website content must not be copied or reproduced, used or otherwise dealt with for any other reason. You are not entitled to modify or redistribute the content of this Website or reproduce, link, frame or deep-link it on any other website without the express written permission of The Sampsonian Co Pty Ltd.”

    Come on, “deep linking”? What a joke. Although people have been successful in court cases involving a plaintiff suing a defendant for merely linking to a website in a way that the owners didn’t agree with… Seemingly disregarding fair use and parody rights.

  33. daniel says:

    Stephen’s name came up in conversation recently while I was visiting my mother and it reminded me of this video. After she watched it she spent a few minutes on gnu.org before downloading and installing Ubuntu. I consider that a success.

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