The emancipation of GCC? Compiler collection now accepts contributions without FSF copyright assignment

Developers who want to contribute to the GNU Compiler Collection but don’t feel like signing over copyright to the Free Software Foundation can get busy committing now. GCC Steering Committee member David Edelsohn informed contributors via the mailing list that the committee “decided to relax the requirement to assign copyright for all changes” to the FSF.

Speaking for the committee, he wrote that the GCC project “will now accept contributions with or without an FSF copyright assignment”, a practice thought of as consistent with that “of many other major Free Software projects, such as the Linux kernel”. 

GCC “will continue to be developed, distributed and licensed” under the GPLv3, so nothing should change for those adding to the project under the old assumptions. 

There are those who have had troubles with that arrangement before, with Apple often cited as a popular example. They are now free to contribute utilising the Developer Certificate of Origin instead of agreeing to an FSF Copyright Assignment. 

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A reason was not given, though the last sentence of the statement, which affirms the principles of Free Software, might give a clue. In March 2021, the committee commented on the removal of Richard Stallman from the project’s steering committee website with a similar declaration. 

According to the committee GCC “effectively has continued to operate as an autonomous project” since EGCS became GCC, all while supporting Free Software principles. However, they felt like an association with Stallman was not serving the best interests of the GCC developers and user community, given that the “GCC Steering Committee is committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for all” – something Stallman isn’t especially known for.

The updated copyright policy aligns with that notion, making it easier for those critical of the FSF and its recent decision to keep Stallman on its board of directors to stick with GCC.

First comments on the move showed some bewilderment about the change and the lack of public discussion ahead of the announcement. Most concerns circled around what the adjustment would mean for potential license changes in the future, something GCC Steering Committee member Jason Merrill tried to dispel already.

Amongst other things Merrill made clear that “GCC’s license is ‘GPL version 3 or later’, so if there ever needed to be a GPL v4, we could move to it without needing permission from anyone”. 

To give some form of clarity about copyright ownership, some developers proposed setting up a new shared copyright pool, similar to the one the Debian project is using, though there hasn’t been any comment on this yet.

On the other end of the spectrum, committers voiced delight about lowering the barrier for new contributors and an opportunity to upstream some older changes which was impossible before. 

The news about the policy change was announced the same day as version 9.4 of the GNU Compiler Collection. The release encompasses more than 190 bug fixes for GCC 9.3, which has been available since March 2020. The latest stable major version of the project is GCC 11.1.

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