GCC, LLVM, Copyleft, Companies, and Non-Profits

Sunday 26 January 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

[ Please keep in mind in reading this post that while both FSF and Conservancy are mentioned, and that I have leadership roles at both organizations, these opinions on ebb.org, as always, are my own and don't necessarily reflect the view of FSF and/or Conservancy. ]

Most people know I'm a fan of RMS' writing about Free Software and I agree with most (but not all) of his beliefs about software freedom politics and strategy. I was delighted to read RMS' post about LLVM on the GCC mailing list on Friday. It's clear and concise, and, as usual, I agree with most (but not all) of it, and I encourage people to read it. Meanwhile, upon reading comments on LWN on this post, I felt the need to add a few points to the discussion.

Firstly, I'm troubled to see so many developers, including GCC developers, conflating various social troubles in the GCC community with the choice of license. I think it's impossible to deny that culturally, the GCC community faces challenges, like any community that has lasted for so long. Indeed, there's a long political history of GCC that even predates my earliest involvement with the Free Software community (even though I'm now considered an old-timer in Free Software in part because I played a small role — as a young, inexperienced FSF volunteer — in helping negotiate the EGCS fork back into the GCC mainline).

But none of these politics really relate to GCC's license. The copyleft was about ensuring that there were never proprietary improvements to the compiler, and AFAIK no GCC developers ever wanted that. In fact, GCC was ultimately the first major enforcement test of the GPL, and ironically that test sent us on the trajectory that led to the current situation.

Specifically, as I've spoken about in my many talks on GPL compliance, the earliest publicly discussed major GPL violation was by NeXT computing when Steve Jobs attempted and failed (thanks to RMS' GPL enforcement work) to make the Objective C front-end to GCC proprietary. Everything for everyone involved would have gone quite differently if that enforcement effort had failed.

As it stands, copyleft was upheld and worked. For years, until quite recently (in context of the history of computing, anyway), Apple itself used and relied on the Free Software GCC as its primary and preferred Objective C compiler, because of that enforcement against NeXT so long ago. But, that occurrence also likely solidified Jobs' irrational hatred of copyleft and software freedom, and Apple was on a mission to find an alternative compiler — but writing a compiler is difficult and takes time.

Meanwhile, I should point out that copyleft advocates sometimes conflate issues in analyzing the situation with LLVM. I believe most LLVM developers when they say that they don't like proprietary software and that they want to encourage software freedom. I really think they do. And, for all of us, copyleft isn't a religion, or even a belief — it's a strategy to maximize software freedom, and no one (AFAICT) has said it's the only viable strategy to do that. It's quite possible the strategy of LLVM developers of changing the APIs quickly to thwart proprietarization might work. I really doubt it, though, and here's why:

I'll concede that LLVM was started with the best of academic intentions to make better compiler technology and share it freely. (I've discussed this issue at some length with Chris Lattner directly, and I believe he actually is someone who wants more software freedom in the world, even if he disagrees with copyleft as a strategy.) IMO, though, the problem we face is exploitation by various anti-copyleft, software-freedom-unfriendly companies that seek to remove every copyleft component from any software stack. Their reasons for pursuing that goal may or may not be rational, but its collateral damage has already become clear: it's possible today to license proprietary improvements to LLVM that aren't released as Free Software. I predict this will become more common, notwithstanding any technical efforts of LLVM developers to thwart it. (Consider, by way of historical example, that proprietary combined works with Apache web server continue to this very day, despite Apache developers' decades of we'll break APIs, so don't keep your stuff proprietary claims.)

Copyleft is always a trade-off between software freedom and adoption. I don't admonish people for picking the adoption side over the software freedom side, but I do think as a community we should be honest with ourselves that copyleft remains the best strategy to prevent proprietary improvements and forks and no other strategy has been as successful in reaching that goal. And, those who don't pick copyleft have priorities other than software freedom ranked higher in their goals.

As a penultimate point, I'll reiterate something that Joe Buck pointed out on the LWN thread: a lot of effort was put in to creating a licensing solution that solved the copyleft concerns of GCC plugins. FSF's worry for more than a decade (reaching back into the late 1990s) was that a GCC plugin architecture would allow writing to an output file GCC's intermediate representation, which would, in turn, allow a wholly separate program to optimize the software by reading and writing that file format, and thus circumvent the protections of copyleft. The GCC Runtime Library Exception (GCC RTL Exception) is (in my biased opinion) an innovative licensing solution that solves the problem — the ironic outcome: you are only permitted to perform proprietary optimization with GCC on GPL'd software, but not on proprietary software.

The problem was that the GCC RTL Exception came too late. While I led the GCC RTL Exception drafting process, I don't take the blame for delays. In fact, I fought for nearly a year to prioritize the work when FSF's outside law firm was focused on other priorities and ignored my calls for urgency. I finally convinced everyone, but the work got done far too late. (IMO, it should have been timed for release in parallel with GPLv3 in June 2007.)

Finally, I want to reiterate that copyleft is a strategy, not a moral principle. I respect the LLVM developers' decision to use a different strategy for software freedom, even if it isn't my preferred strategy. Indeed, I respect it so much that I supported Conservancy's offer of membership to LLVM in Software Freedom Conservancy. I still hope the LLVM developers will take Conservancy up on this offer. I think that regardless of a project's preferred strategy for software freedom — copyleft or non-copyleft — that it's important for the developers to have a not-for-profit charity as a gathering place for developers, separate from their for-profit employer affiliations.

Undue for-profit corporate influence is the biggest problem that software freedom faces today. Indeed, I don't know a single developer in our community who likes to see their work proprietarized. Developers, generally speaking, want to share their code with other developers. It's lawyers and business people with dollar signs in their eyes who want to make proprietary software. Those people sometimes convince developers to make trade-offs (which I don't agree with myself) to work on proprietary software (— usually in exchange for funding some of their work time on upstream Free Software). Meanwhile, those for-profit-corporate folks frequently spread lies and half-truths about the copyleft side of the community — in an effort to convince developers that their Free Software projects “won't survive” if those developers don't follow the exact plan The Company proposes. I've experienced these manipulations myself — for example, in April 2013, a prominent corporate lawyer with an interest in LLVM told me to my face that his company would continue spreading false rumors that I'd use LLVM's membership in Conservancy to push the LLVM developers toward copyleft, despite my public statements to the contrary. (Again, for the record, I have no such intention and I'd be delighted to help LLVM be led in a non-profit home by its rightful developer leaders, whichever Open Source and Free Software license they chose.)

In short, the biggest threat to the future of software has always been for-profit companies who wish to maximize profits by exploiting the code, developers and users while limiting their software freedom. Such companies try every trick in pursuit of that goal. As such, I prefer copyleft as a strategy. However, I don't necessarily admonish those who pick a different strategy. The reason that I encourage membership of non-copylefted projects in Conservancy (and other 501(c)(3) charities) is to give those projects the benefits of a non-profit home that maximize software freedom using the project's chosen strategy, whatever it may be.

Posted on Sunday 26 January 2014 at 11:45 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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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.

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