Today marks the 40th anniversary of the GNU operating system, and a number of its users are coming together around the world to celebrate the milestone. 

GNU is an open-source operating system similar to Unix that was created in 1983 by Richard Stallman. In 2019, following controversy around statements he made around Jeffrey Epstein and accusations of past sexual harassment, many members of the GNU project pushed for his removal as the head of the project, though he ultimately stayed on board. He did step down from his position at MIT and the Free Software Foundation (FSF), but returned to the FSF in 2021.

GNU is maintained and supported by the FSF, which was initially founded mostly around the project, though today it has grown to support other free software projects. 

“When we look back at the history of the free software movement — or the idea that users should be in control of their own computing — it starts with GNU,” said Zoë Kooyman, executive director of the FSF. “The GNU System isn’t just the most widely used operating system that is based on free software. GNU is also at the core of a philosophy that has guided the free software movement for forty years.”

The operating system is fundamental to the Internet as we know it today, as it currently powers millions of servers, desktops, and other embedded computing devices, the FSF explained.

According to the FSF, GNU was a pioneer of the concept of “copyleft” that requires derivative works from a piece of software to include the same rights. The GNU General Public License (GPL) has since become one of the more popular open-source licenses, and there have been three major iterations of it. 

“The goal of GNU was to give users freedom, not just to be popular. So we needed to use distribution terms that would prevent GNU software from being turned into proprietary software. The method we use is called ‘copyleft,’” Stallman wrote in a post

When Linux came about almost 10 years later, it was released under the GNU GPL. Other open-source projects with a GNU GPL include Ansible, Drupal, Git, and WordPress.

“We hope that the fortieth anniversary will inspire hackers, both old and new, to join GNU in its goal to create, improve, and share free software around the world. Software is controlling our world these days, and GNU is a critique and solution to the status quo that we desperately need in order to not have our technology control us,” said Kooyman.