GCC Steering Committee Moves Away From Free Software Foundation

When the Free Software Foundation (FSF) recently returned its disgraced founder Richard M. Stallman (RMS) to its board, the FSF board did not anticipate how others would view his return. Even the GCC Steering Committee, which oversaw the primary collection of free software programming language tools GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), removed Stallman, the original creator of GCC, from its membership. Now, the GCC Steering Committee has relaxed its decades-old requirement that new and modified GCC code should have its copyright assigned to the FSF.

RMS supporters see this as the GCC community moving away from the FSF. Die-hard RMS devotees even see it as the GCC, which perhaps moves away from free software. The GCC Steering Committee, however, specifically denied this. “The GCC Steering Committee continues to affirm the principles of free software, and that will never change.”

Specifically, what happened is that David Edelsohn, IBM’s CTO GCC Technology and a member of the GCC’s steering committee since its inception in 1998, announced that:

The GCC Steering Committee has decided to relax the requirement to attribute copyright for all changes to the Free Software Foundation. GCC will continue to be developed, distributed and released under the GNU General Public License v3.0. GCC will now accept contributions with or without an assignment of copyright from the FSF. This change is consistent with the practices of many other large free software projects, such as the Linux kernel.

So what does this mean? Edelsohn continued that if you were happy to let the FSF own your copyright, you had nothing to do. But now you can have a choice. You can also donate your code with a developer certificate of origin [DCO license]. To do this, developers must add a Signed By message to their commit messages. “Developers with commit access can add their name to the DCO list in the MAINTAINERS file to certify the DCO for all future commits instead of individual messages signed by for each commit.”

Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor, one of the architects of the Gnu Public License (GPL) and president of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), added in an interview: “I am not, and SFLC is not not, the attorney for the FSF, the GNU Project, or the GCC Steering Committee. We don’t speak for any of them. I have read the GCC Steering Committee Statement on Copyright Assignment, and on that basis, I can provide independent legal advice.The effect of this change, “as the GCC Steering Committee asserts, is to loosen the ties between the FSF and GCC projects.”

DCOs are used by many open source projects as an alternative to a Contributor License Agreement (CLA). The FSF prefers that all contributions to GCC be under a CLA that gives them copyright, but they don’t absolutely require it. Indeed, the FSF will also accept donations in some cases as part of a DCO.

Typically, free/open source software CLAs require the contributor to grant a copyright license in the contribution to the open source project, its maintainer, and/or downstream recipients. SCCs are not standardized, so contributions may be subject to different SCCs or none at all. For example, besides the FSF, the Apache Software Foundation, Eclipse Foundation, Google, and Microsoft, to name a few, require CLAs.

In this case, Moglen continued that “The FSF will long remain the preponderant copyright holder of GCC and related projects, but the Steering Committee and its councils will now begin to consider in the projects’ legal relationships the presence other copyright owners, to the extent that it chooses to incorporate the contributions of non-assignors.”

But, what’s different, Moglen said, is that while the “CCG doesn’t change anything with its ‘outgoing’ licenses,” it’s a different story with the ‘incoming’ licenses.

As for the outgoing license, it is always the same. “The compiler and associated elements of the toolchain remain licensed under the terms of GPLv3, as modified by the relevant additional permissions. No downstream user, modder, or redistributor of GCC faces any changes whatsoever let them be.”

What’s new, Moglen said, is that “the GCC Steering Committee has decided, on the ‘incoming’ side of its projects, not to require the assignment of copyright to the FSF for contributions. Assignment of copyright to the FSF has traditionally been required for “essential” components of the GNU Project. Instead, the Steering Committee has decided to allow contributors to retain their own copyrights, if they so choose. These contributors may submit a Developer Certificate of Origin, stating that the contribution is their own work or the work of others who have given them authority to certify origin, and that they have the necessary rights to This is the mechanism by which the Linux Kernel Project, among other non-FSF managers of GPLed code, accepts contributions to their work.

Historically, not all free software and open source proponents like CLA. As attorneys at the international law firm Finnegan point out, “A common criticism of CLAs is their potential to discourage contributions to the open source project. A legal contract defining the rights and obligations, and potential liabilities, associated with a contribution can be intimidating to software developers who simply want to make minor bugfixes or other enhancements to existing open source code.”

It was to help avoid this, and related problems, that the Linux Foundation released the first DCO in 2004. Since then, DCOs have been used in the Linux kernel and many open source projects.

Regarding the GCC, in another post, Edelsohn specifically stated, “The policy update does not override any existing or future copyright assignments from the FSF – it only expands the options available. … Individuals and businesses can choose how to proceed with their existing copyrights. FSF Copyright Assignments. Individuals and businesses can continue to establish new copyright assignments with the FSF.”

Needless to say, not everyone is happy with this change even though it is optional. Some believe that the GCC Steering Committee has no right to make the decision. Others, like Jose E. Marchesi, head of Oracle’s GNU toolchain division, think they and their company should have been consulted and are calling for the change to be put on hold for the time being. Still, others worry about what it means if the GCC’s license changes from its GPLv3 to a hypothetical future GPLv4.

Heather Meeker, a partner at law firm O’Melveny & Myers, which specializes in open source software licensing, thinks the GCC’s steering committee made a wise choice, however. Meeker wrote, “This decision aligns the GCC project with community practices, and it’s a welcome development. Over the years, various contributors have refused to accept the FSF Contribution Assignment Agreement, an unusual document both in substance and form. In substance, while attributions for contributions were more common a few decades ago, today they are quite rare; most open source projects today use either a license in=out (with or without DCO), or a CLA with a non-exclusive license As to form, the FSF Mission contains some truly unique patent language that patent licensing attorneys find perplexing, forcing businesses to be hesitant to make contributions to FSF projects simply because they cannot parse the terms.

In short, Meeker expects “This move should pave the way for more contributors to feel comfortable contributing to GCC.” We will see if this is indeed the case.

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