When Linus Torvalds was asked in the documentary Revolution OS whether the name "GNU/Linux" was justified, he replied: Well, I think it's justified, but it's justified if you actually make a GNU distribution of Linux ... the same way that I think that "Red Hat Linux" is fine, or "SuSE Linux" or "Debian Linux", because if you actually make your own distribution of Linux, you get to name the thing, but calling Linux in general "GNU Linux" I think is just ridiculous.

I don't understand what Linus Torvalds meant here. Can we really make GNU a distribution of Linux?

  • Some systems are Gnu+Linux, others are Gnu+Hurd, or Gnu+bsd kernel, others are Linux+something else, an example of the latter is android. Aug 23, 2014 at 22:43
  • The think we call Linux is not linux it is Gnu + Linux (so we should call it Gnu/Linux). However Linux is Linux, and should be called Linux. However few people are talking about Linux they are talking about Gnu + Linux, such as Red Hat or Suse or Debian or Ubuntu or … Sep 17, 2017 at 18:08

5 Answers 5


Linus is of the opinion that a distribution should be named by its distributor. In the quotation you posted, he is saying that if GNU distributed Linux, the name GNU/Linux could apply to their distribution.

GNU does not distribute Linux. GNU provides large portions of most Linux distributions though so they want GNU/Linux users to say they use GNU/Linux operating systems.

  • 1
    Also when you build the name GNU/Linux you get a name with as many characters as Microsoft!
    – 41754
    Jul 9, 2013 at 6:50

There are two conflicting common ways to use the term "Linux".

Strictly speaking, the term "Linux" refers only to the kernel of which Linus Torvalds is the primary author.

The term "Linux" is also commonly used to refer to any of a number of OS distributions, consisting of the Linux kernel, a number of tools distributed by the GNU project, and perhaps some other things.

Linus Torvalds, in the quoted paragraphs, seems to be accepting the use of the word "Linux" to refer to an entire distribution. Given that usage, it would make sense to refer to an OS based on the Linux kernel and distributed by the GNU project as "GNU Linux".

Richard Stallman and the FSF, on the other hand, maintain that the term Linux should be used only to refer to the kernel, and that an OS distribution containing the Linux kernel and GNU tools should be referred to as "GNU/Linux". I feel certain that Richard Stallman would disagree with the quoted statement from Linus Torvalds.

And in fact the FSF does distribute gNewSense, which is based on Debian. The FSF refers to gNewSense as a "GNU/Linux distribution", by which they mean a distribution that uses GNU tools and the Linux kernel. (I'm glossing over the distinction between the FSF and the GNU project.)

(I am carefully avoiding expressing an opinion on the controversy.)


To the question in the title: No, the GNU project does not distribute Linux. They create a lot of software and allow anybody to distribute it, but you could hardly call the project a software distribution (unlike e.g. the Debian project, which is focused on distributing a full OS, with Linux or optionally a different kernel, such as Hurd or kFreeBSD).

To your actual question; I believe the quote means that if GNU were to distribute Linux in some form, it might make sense to call that "GNU Linux"; but the way things currently stand, there is nothing which could reasonably carry that name.

Note also that Debian calls their Linux distribution "Debian GNU/Linux" to emphasize that crucial parts of the distribution builds on GNU software; this was the outcome from a rather heated debate from the time of the quotation you had found. (It's not entirely accurate, because there are parts in Debian which are neither GNU nor Linux.) At the time, GNU founder Richard M Stallman was arguing that Linux distributions built on a GNU toolchain and userspace should be called "GNU/Linux" (or something like that) but very few actually followed suit.

The declared long-term goal of GNU is to create (and likely then distribute) a full OS, but they have rejected the Linux kernel for a number of reasons. The Hurd was their kernel effort at the time, and apparently it still is.


Richard Stallman said : There is no system but GNU, and Linux is one of its kernels.

Linus said : Well, I think it's justified, but it's justified if you actually make a GNU distribution of Linux ... the same way that I think that "Red Hat Linux" is fine, or "SuSE Linux" or "Debian Linux", because if you actually make your own distribution of Linux, you get to name the thing, but calling Linux in general "GNU Linux" I think is just ridiculous.

There is a controversy when it comes to the name http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU/Linux_naming_controversy

But, let's see what is a linux or GNU/Linux system : Actually it is a linux kernel with many important GNU 'components' like gcc .

I see no harm in calling it GNU/Linux , and I don't see what : GNU based on Linux ditro or Linux based on GNU distro means, because every one of them played and play a role in every GNU/Linux system .


Almost everything you commonly use on top of Linux is GNU, hence the term.

Most people and organizations tend to stick to Microsoft OS because of being constrained by 3rd parties, say, some Sysadmins prefer to code VBS and use their VMware vCenters on top of Microsoft. Which, by the way, uses a established hybrid kernel, theoretically a more advanced and safe architecture than monolithic, which is for instance Linux. Of course in practice something you can see in the Internet as the Linus Law applies, hence the classic OS flame and economic wars.

Well, on the other hand, many other people would install a Linux distribution in many scenarios, but a common use case is somewhat similar to that of Microsoft, for instance peoples could be involved in your project here, and even though some gurus (which use to prefer to develop from a POSIX environment) are maintaining the cross compilation to Microsoft, in the end you get the changes first and have better support if you use an environment similar to that of the developers, POSIX. That, and with this, the most part of the Linux OS' success, can be arguably applied to some GNU tools, such as coreutils (for instance your ls) and overall the GNU Compiler Compilation. That is the reason for the FSF and GNU people to insist in calling GNU/Linux that bunch of software packages that people will normally be using in their Ooboontoo OS.

I think Linus is fair pointing that Red Hat or SuSE would like to drop GNU from their products name, because IMO these are medium companies capable (if they want to) to drop GNU. That does not apply so much to Debian as it is a people's project, but he can have his opinion, as much as the GNU and FSF people in the other side and many Debian, Arch, Gentoo, Slackware... people in between.

Things have been like this for twenty years till today, but maybe this will eventually change. Some movements to be aware of: Arch Hurd, Minix (maybe at last is its time), Debian GNU/KFreeBSD, a potential Microsoft POSIX compliant OS, for name some.

  • Seems more like a comment than an answer. Perhaps you could elaborate a bit? List the tools etc. explain why?
    – slm
    Jul 1, 2013 at 14:09
  • 2
    Not a single paragraph is completely accurate... Jul 1, 2013 at 19:08
  • Some of the most important parts of the GNU/Linux OS are provided by GNU (glibc, gcc, etc), but it would be entirely wrong to say "almost everything" on top of Linux is GNU. Most people use Windows because it's what they're used to and they have little incentive to use anything else. Some people don't know that any operating systems other than Windows exist. They are simply "clueless" from our point of view. Red Hat and SuSE don't want to drop GNU from their product names; they don't want to add it.
    – user26112
    Jul 1, 2013 at 20:53
  • Am sorry I wanted to write "Almost everything you commonly use on top of Linux leverages a big part of GNU by using its tools (GNU and Linux, no matter how called, are presented in the film as a symbiose, and that is what they are, if no longer, at least from 1991 till 2001), hence the term."
    – 41754
    Jul 2, 2013 at 6:05

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