Welcome (Finally!) to the GCC Runtime Library Exception

Tuesday 27 January 2009 by Bradley M. Kuhn

For the past sixteen months, I participated in a bit of a “mini-GPLv3 process” among folks at the FSF, SFLC, the GNU Compiler Collection Steering Committee (GCC SC), and the GCC community at large. We've been drafting an important GPLv3 license exception (based on a concept by David Edelsohn and Eben Moglen, that they invented even before the GPLv3 process itself started). Today, that GCC Runtime Library Exception for GPLv3 went into production.

I keep incessant track of my hours spent on various projects, so I have hard numbers that show I personally spent 188 hours — a full month of 40-hour weeks — on this project. I'm sure my colleagues have spent similar amounts, too. I am proud of this time, and I think it was absolutely worthwhile. I hope the discussion gives you a flavor of why FLOSS license exception drafting is both incredibly important and difficult to get right without the greatest of care and attention to detail.

Why GPL Exceptions Exist

Before I jump into discussion of this GCC Runtime Library exception, some background is needed. Exceptions have been a mainstay of copyleft licensing since the inception of the GNU project, and once you've seen many examples over many years, they become a standard part of FLOSS licensing. However, for the casual FLOSS developer who doesn't wish to be a licensing wonk (down this path lies madness, my friends, run screaming with your head covered!), exceptions are a rare discovery in a random source file or two, and they do not command great attention. An understandable reaction, but from a policy perspective, they are an essential part of the copyleft system.

From the earliest days of the copyleft, it was understood that copyleft was a merely a strategy to reach the goal of software freedom. The GPL is a tool that implements this strategy, but like any tool, it doesn't fit every job.

In some sense, the LGPL was the earliest and certainly the most widely known “GPL exception”. (Indeed, my friend Richard Fontana came up with the idea to literally make LGPL an exception to GPLv3, although in the v2 world, LGPLv2 was a fully separate license from GPLv2.) Discussions on why the LGPL exists are beyond the scope of this blog post (although I've written about them before). Generally speaking, though, LGPL is designed to be a tool when you don't want the full force of copyleft for all derivative works. Namely, you want to permit the creation of some proprietary (or partly proprietary) derivative works because allowing those derivations makes strategic sense in pursuing the goal of software freedom.

Aside from the LGPL, the most common GPL exceptions are usually what we generally categorize as “linking exceptions”. They allow the modifier to take some GPL'd object code and combine it in some way with some proprietary code during the compilation process. The simplest of these exceptions is found when you, for example, write a GPL'd program in a language with only a proprietary implementation, (e.g., VisualBasic) and you want to allow the code to combine with the VisualBasic runtime libraries. You use your exclusive right as copyright holder on the new program to grant downstream users, redistributors and modifiers the right combine with those proprietary libraries without having those libraries subject to copyleft.

In essence, copyleft exceptions are the scalpels of copyleft. They allow you to create very carefully constructed carve-outs of permission when pure copyleft is too blunt an instrument to advance the goal of software freedom. Many software freedom policy questions require this fine cutting work to reach the right outcome.

The GCC Exception

The GCC Exception (well, exceptions, really) have always been a particularly interesting and complex use of a copyleft exception. Initially, they were pragmatically needed to handle a technological reality about compilers that interacts in a strange way with copyright derivative works doctrine. Specifically, when you compile a program with gcc, parts of GCC itself, called the runtime library (and before that, crt0), are combined directly with your program in the output binary. The binary, therefore, is both a derivative work of your source code and a derivative work of the runtime library. If GCC were pure GPL, every binary compiled with GCC would need to be licensed under the terms of GPL.

Of course, when RMS was writing the first GCC, he realized immediately this licensing implication and created an exception to avoid this. Versions of that exception has been around and improved since the late 1980s. The task that our team faced in late 2007 was to update that exception, both to adapt it to the excellent new GPLv3 exceptions infrastructure (as Fontana did for LGPLv3), and to handle a new policy question that has been kicking around the GCC world since 2002.

The Plugin Concern

For years, compiler experimentalists and researchers have been frustrated by GCC. It's very difficult to add a new optimization to GCC because you need quite a deep understanding of the codebase to implement one. Indeed I tried myself, as a graduate student in programming languages in the mid-1990s, to learn enough about GCC to do this, but gave up when a few days of study got me nowhere. Advancement of compiler technology can only happen when optimization experimentation can happen easily.

To make it easy to try new optimizations out, GCC needs a plugin architecture. However, the GCC community has resisted this because of the software freedom implications of such an architecture: if plugins are easy to write, then it will be easy to write out to disk a version of GCC's internal program representation (sometimes called the intermediate representation, or IR). Then, proprietary programs could be used to analyze and optimize this IR, and a plugin could be used to read the file back into GCC.

From a licensing perspective, such an optimizing proprietary program will usually not be a derivative work of GCC; it merely reads and writes some file format. It's analogous to OpenOffice reading and writing Microsoft Word files, which doesn't make it a derivative of Word by any means! The only parts that are covered by GPL are the actual plugins to GCC to read and write the format, just as OpenOffice's Word reader and writer are Free Software, but Microsoft Word is not.

This licensing implication is a disaster for the GCC community. It would mean the advent of “compilation processes” that were “mixed”, FaiF and proprietary. The best, most difficult and most interesting parts of that compilation process — the optimizations — could be fully proprietary!

This outcome is unacceptable from a software freedom policy perspective, but difficult to handle in licensing. Eben Moglen, David Edelsohn, and a few others, however, came up with an innovative idea: since all binaries are derivative of GCC anyway, set up the exception so that proprietary binary output from GCC is permitted only when the entire compilation process involves Free Software. In other words, you can do these proprietary optimization plugins all you want, but if you do, you'll not be able to compile anything but GPL'd software with them!

The Drafting and the Outcome

As every developer knows, the path from “innovative idea” to “working implementation” is a long road. It's just as true with licensing policy as it is with code. Those 188 hours that I've spent, along with even more hours spent by a cast of dozens, have been spent making a license exception that implements that idea accurately without messing up the GCC community or its licensing structure.

With jubilation today, I link to the announcement from the FSF, the FAQ and Rationale for the exception and the final text of the exception itself. This sixteen-month long cooperation between the FSF, the SFLC, the GCC SC, and the GCC community has produced some fine licensing policy that will serve our community well for years to come. I am honored to have been a part of it, and a bit relieved that it is complete.

Posted on Tuesday 27 January 2009 at 15:30 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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SELECT full_text FROM standard WHERE type = 'disclaimer';

Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>