GCC Runtime Library Exception Rationale and FAQ
On June 29th, 2007 the Free Software Foundation released GPLv3. It
was immediately adopted by fifteen GNU projects, and more made the
switch in the following months. Most of the GCC codebase migrated to
the new license in the 4.2.2 release, and now we are preparing to
finish that process.
The licenses for some libraries that accompany GCC have not been
changed yet. These libraries are automatically used by the object
code that GCC produces. Because of that, if these libraries were
simply distributed only under the terms of the GPL, all the object
code that GCC produces would have to be distributed under the same
terms. However, the FSF decided long ago to allow developers to use
GCC's libraries to compile any program, regardless of its license.
Developing nonfree software is not good for society, and we have no
obligation to make it easier. We decided to permit this because
forbidding it seemed likely to backfire, and because using small
libraries to limit the use of GCC seemed like the tail wagging the
Therefore, these libraries have always had license exceptions that
allow people to distribute the object code GCC produces under any
license. We are now moving these libraries to GPLv3 and updating
their exceptions. Our fundamental policy has not changed; the new
license is meant to permit all the uses of GCC that were permitted
before. However, we have decided to use this opportunity to update
the exception to accomplish three goals:
Take advantage of GPLv3's new provisions. GPLv3 features a number
of new terms which benefit all software. These include section 7,
which establishes a framework for providing license exceptions. In
order for GCC to get the most benefit from GPLv3, we need to update
the exception to take these new terms into account, and work within
the parameters of section 7.
Lay the groundwork for a plugin infrastructure in GCC. For a while
now, the GCC developers have considered adding a plugin framework to
the compiler. This would make it easier for others to contribute to
the project, and accelerate the development of new compilation
techniques for GCC. However, there have also been concerns that
unscrupulous developers could write plugins that called out to
proprietary software to transform the compiled code—effectively
creating proprietary extensions to GCC and defeating the purpose of
the GPL. The updated exception prevents such abuse, enabling the
GCC team to look forward to plugin developments.
Make exceptions throughout the GCC code base consistent. Over the
years, as new files were added to GCC that needed to carry this
license exception, we reviewed and updated the language to help
clarify it and address new concerns. As a result, there are now
many different exception texts in GCC that provide the same basic
permissions. Now all of those files will be able to use the single
new exception text that we've prepared, making it easier to perform
legal reviews on the code.
As with GPLv3, we worked hard to listen to various users' concerns
while we drafted this, and address them appropriately. All told, we
have spent more than a year on this process. The Free Software
Foundation and the GCC Steering Committee would like to thank Richard
Fontana, Bradley Kuhn, and Karen Sandler at the Software Freedom Law
Center for all their hard work and assistance with the exception. The
changes here will strengthen the GCC community, and we look forward to
the compiler developments it will enable.
Because GCC is such a crucial part of developers' lives, we're
expecting lots of questions about these changes, and we want to make
sure that they're addressed. Below we've addressed specific concerns
that we expect users will have. If you have questions about the new
exception that aren't mentioned here, please feel free to contact us
How the Exception Works
The permission you need—to convey the object code from these GCC
libraries under your own project's license—is primarily contained in
You have permission to propagate a work of Target Code formed by
combining the Runtime Library with Independent Modules, even if such
propagation would otherwise violate the terms of GPLv3, provided
that all Target Code was generated by Eligible Compilation
Processes. You may then convey such a combination under terms of
your choice, consistent with the licensing of the Independent
This section uses many defined terms, and their specific meanings are
integral to how the exception works. This section looks at how these
terms relate to common scenarios.
When you write your software, it consists of a set of source code
files. Each file is an “Independent Module,” as long as
it doesn't contain any source from the GCC libraries.
When you compile those source code files, they usually go through a
series of steps: source code generation, preprocessing, compilation to
low-level code, assembling, and linking. Not all projects follow all
these steps, depending on what language you're using and how it's
written, but they'll always go in this order, and everyone using GCC
will go through the process of compiling high-level code into some
low-level language such as assembly code or Java bytecode. This phase
is when GCC combines or links your own code with code from the GCC
libraries. We call it the “Compilation Process.” The
output you get from it is called “Target Code,” as long as
that output is not used as compiler intermediate representation, or to
create such an intermediate representation.
In order to take advantage of this permission, the Compilation
Process that you use to create Target Code has to be
“Eligible,” which means that it does not involve both GCC
and GPL-incompatible software. It's important to remember that the
Compilation Process starts when you feed any high-level code
to GCC, and ends as soon as it generates anything that can be
considered Target Code. Because of that, as long as GCC isn't writing
out intermediate representation, your Compilation Process can still be
Eligible even if you use GCC in conjunction with GPL-incompatible
assemblers, linkers, or high-level source generators: those programs
aren't involved in the Compilation Process as it's defined here. The
only place you can't use GPL-incompatible software with GCC is when
it's performing the core compilation work.
So, if you use GCC, with or without GPL-compatible enhancements, that
would be an Eligible Compilation Process. If you only use
GPL-incompatible compiler tools, that would be an Eligible Compilation
Process as well. (It's not uncommon for people who build software for
GNU/Linux to link against the GCC libraries even if they're using a
different compiler.) However, if you used GCC in conjunction with
GPL-incompatible software during the process of transforming
high-level code to low-level code, that would not be an Eligible
Compilation Process. This would happen if, for example, you used GCC
with a proprietary plugin.
As long as you use an Eligible Compilation Process, then you have
permission to take the Target Code that GCC generates and propagate it
“under terms of your choice.”
If you did use GPL-incompatible software in conjunction with GCC
during the Compilation Process, you would not be able to take
advantage of this permission. Since all of the object code that GCC
generates is derived from these GPLed libraries, that means you would
be required to follow the terms of the GPL when propagating any of
that object code. You could not use GCC to develop your own
Frequently Asked Questions
- I am using a standard release of GCC (such as one provided by the
FSF, or with my operating system) to compile GPL-incompatible
software. How does this change affect me?
It should not affect you at all. Unless you've configured GCC
to output intermediate representation—which is rare—the
new exception is designed to ensure that you have no license
obligations when you do this, just as the old exceptions
- Who does this change affect?
Nobody who is currently using GCC should be affected by this change.
The only changes in policy are meant to prevent developers from making
certain modifications to GCC that will become feasible in the future.
The FSF has been working closely with GCC developers to learn more about
the many different ways people use GCC today, and ensure that they will all
be able to continue those activities under the new exception.
- I use GCC in conjunction with proprietary preprocessors and/or source
generators to compile my program. Can I still take advantage of the
Yes. The Compilation Process can start with any “code
entirely represented in a high-level, non-intermediate
language.” This includes code generated by a preprocessor or
other proprietary software. As such, the Compilation Process in this
case does not involve any proprietary software; it qualifies as
Eligible, and the exception is available for this program.
- I use GCC in conjunction with proprietary assemblers and/or linkers to
compile my program. Can I still take advantage of the exception?
Yes. The Compilation Process ends when the compiler generates
Target Code, which includes output that is “suitable for input
to an assembler, loader, linker and/or execution phase.” In
other words, the Compilation Process in this case is over when you
have assembly code or unlinked object files from GCC, and so it does
not involve any proprietary software. It qualifies as Eligible, and
the exception is thus available for this program.
- I use GCC to compile parts of my program, and a proprietary
compiler to compile other parts. The pieces are combined afterward,
during assembler or linking phases. Can I still take advantage of the
Yes. In this case, each Independent Module is turned into Target Code
through an Eligible Compilation Process. Even though different modules
will go through different processes, the exception is still available
for this program.
- I use a proprietary compiler toolchain without any parts of GCC to
compile my program, and link it with libstdc++. My program itself
does not include any runtime library code the same way that
GCC-compiled programs include libgcc. Can I still take advantage of
Yes. While combining libgcc with GCC-compiled object code is
probably the most common way the exception is used, neither the GPL
nor the GCC Runtime Library Exception distinguish between static
linking, dynamic linking, and other methods for combining code in
their conditions. The same permissions are available to you, under
the same terms, no matter which method you use.
Note that if you distribute libstdc++ as an independent library,
you will need to follow the terms of the GPL when doing so. For
example, if you distribute the library itself in object code form, you
will need to provide source code to your recipients using one of the
methods listed in section 6 of GPLv3. But as long as you are eligible
to take advantage of the GCC Runtime Library Exception's permissions
for your own program, the GPL's terms do not extend to it.
- Why is compiler intermediate representation excluded from the
definition of “Target Code?”
When we first considered adding a plugin infrastructure to GCC, we
were deeply concerned about the possibility that someone would write a
plugin that would merely save GCC's internal, low-level compilation
data structures to disk. With that done, other software would be able
to optimize or otherwise improve that code without being directly
connected to GCC. It may have been difficult for us to argue that
those programs should be subject to the GPL's copyleft, so we wanted
to discourage these sorts of arrangements.
We do that by excluding such output from the definition of Target
Code. Because of this, even if someone writes a plugin that saves
this information to disk, any programs that change the structures
before GCC writes out Target Code will be involved in the Compilation
Process. If that program is proprietary, the exception will not be
available to any software compiled with it; the object code that GCC
ultimately creates will have to be distributed under the terms of the
- If I write some code in assembly language, can I combine that with
other object code compiled normally, and still take advantage of the
Yes, as long as all of the object code was compiled through an
Eligible Compilation Process. The process of running hand-written
assembly through an assembler is a Compilation Process, since it
“transforms code entirely represented in [a] non-intermediate
language designed for human-written code... into Target
- What libraries does the GCC Runtime Library Exception cover?
The GCC Runtime Library Exception covers any file that has a
notice in its license headers stating that the exception applies.
This includes libgcc, libstdc++, libfortran, libgomp, libdecnumber,
libgcov, and other libraries distributed with GCC.
- Will Classpath use this new exception?
Even though Classpath's current exception serves a similar purpose,
we are not updating it at this time. Because of recent developments
in the free software Java community, the priorities for Classpath's
licensing policies are different from other GCC libraries, and we are
evaluating it separately.