Google Groups

GPL ramifications and purpose

Richard Stallman Jul 5, 1993 11:12 PM
Posted in group: gnu.misc.discuss
Several years ago, I met with Steve Jobs, who was looking for some
alternative to making the Objective C front end free software.  (This
may have been due to worries about being hassled by Stepstone, rather
than a desire to be uncooperative.)  He asked me if it it would be
legal to ship proprietary .o files to the user and have the user link
them with the GNU compiler.

At that time, I envisaged the legal ramifications like some others who
have recently posted on this list, so I did not see a basis for saying
they could not do this.

But at the same time, I realized that it would not bode well for the
GNU project if such a thing were permitted.  So I responded, "I will
have to check with our lawyer."

It's a good thing I did, because when I checked, I found that there
was a basis for objecting to this plan.  Such .o files would have
implied the presence of the GNU compiler, linked with them.  They
would be, in effect, a way of distributing a larger program which
implicitly includes the GNU compiler; as such, it must follow the
terms on the GNU compiler.

I told NeXT this, and NeXT decided there was no alternative to making
the Objective C front end free software.  So now it is available to
all of us as a part of GCC.

Note that this is not a matter of copyrighting an interface.  The .o
files that NeXT planned to release would have used one of the
(internal) interfaces of the GNU compiler, but that was *not* what the
FSF objected to.  Our objection was because the use of these .o files
implied linking them with the GNU compiler--the program, not just an

If it were possible for a company to get around the GPL simply by
dressing up changes or extensions as "separate programs that the user
might link in", then the GPL would be a paper tiger.  (True, we often
print it on paper, but...)  So it is vital for the FSF to object.

If we made this a request rather than a legal demand, some people
would comply as a matter of conscience.  But many others who would
not.  If I had told Jobs, "It is legal, but please don't," I doubt he
would have heeded the request.

Many improvements to GNU software are contributed by, or funded by,
companies.  If they could make these improvements proprietary, many of
them would.  I consider these companies unethical (because making
proprietary software is unethical in general), but they don't share my
ethical views, and they don't feel they should forego profit for a
mere request from the FSF.

The only way to make sure these improvements are free software is to
make it hard to make them proprietary.  That's what the GPL is for,
and to make it work right, we must not permit getting around it by
"having the user do the link."