Our new way to meet the LGPL

Hi again, and welcome to our next technical article. This is a mix of technical and legal, but as I know many of us in the open source community are very serious about the licences we work under, I thought you would like a little background reading to lead you up to a really neat and little-known feature of the GNU linker (ld) that we have just adopted.

For years, LGP has been working with libraries such as SDL, ffmpeg, and others that are licensed under the LGPL (GNU Lesser General Public License). Without these invaluable tools from the open source community, LGP would not exist, and nor would hundreds of open source projects.

The LGPL states that an application that links against an LGPL library is not bound by the LGPL itself, but then goes on to qualify this, and make exceptions, and even itself states that the boundaries between what counts as simply linking against a library, and what counts as a derivative work, are ‘not precisely defined by law’.

The problem we have always faced is finding a way to make sure the game is portable. To do this you MUST make sure that you are using a known version of as many libraries as you possibly can. There is no point in exhaustively testing a game against SDL 1.2.12 when next week SDL 1.2.13 comes out, changes a few of our assumptions, and means the game crashes. Multiply the problem by the number of versions a library has, multiplied by the number of libraries a game links against, and you can see why this is a big problem. And so, we like to make sure we build the game, test the game, and run the game, all against exactly the same libraries as the end user will use, in as many cases as is possible.

Since the beginning of commercial Linux games, the common practice has been to create a release of each game such that there was a static and a dynamic linked version of the game in each release. The dynamic version of the game would be completely in compliance with the word and spirit of the LGPL, using the users own system libraries, while the static linked version of the game was released because linking the libraries directly into the game ensured we knew which libraries were being used. The statically linked executable though, was really not very much in the spirit of the LGPL. We always got away with it because we included the exact same game in full LGPL compliance,and because of the wording of the LGPL, it was fairly ambiguous as to whether this was allowed. But even so, we were never happy with it. Loopholes are not something to be proud of using.

There was another method of course. The other method involved forcing the game, via the LD_LIBRARY_PATH to use libraries in a certain directory. However that had issues of its own. To do this you either have to tell the user ‘before you start your game type this long command into the commandline’ or you start the game from a shellscript. Shellscripts are all well and good, but they bring problems of their own, such as (for security) making changes to the euid, resetting values from /etc/profile, and of course, assuming that the shell in use has exactly the same syntax as the shell at the time of release. It was decided that because of this, and many other issues, starting from a shellscript was too much of a risk for portability and was ruled out.

And so, we were left with the method that has been being used for the last 12 or so years. That is until recently, when we found a nice new way to fix this problem once and for all.

Most people are probably unaware of the linker option, -rpath. Most of you don’t ever need to be. This option lets you tell an application where to look for libraries. It works just like adding a new path into the LD_LIBRARY_PATH. Great, but it doesn’t really help like that. It is set at compile time and so we would need to restrict installation to a known directory on everyone’s machine. Obviously unacceptable for most users.

And so the problem remained until one of our devteam discovered a neat little trick that isn’t even documented in the manual for the linker. You can use a special keyword $ORIGIN to say ‘relative to the actual location of the executable’. Suddenly we found we could use -rpath $ORIGIN/lib and it worked. The game was loading the correct libraries, and so was stable and portable, but was also now completely in the spirit of the LGPL as well as the letter!

For those of you a little newer to compiling under Linux, some of you may not even be aware you use the ld linker. It is done automatically by gcc for you. If you are simply using gcc in a Makefile, it is a little more difficult in syntax, but as a hint you would change an example Makefile line that started like this

gcc obj1.o obj2.o -o my_application

to be

gcc -Wl,-rpath,\$$ORIGIN/lib/ obj1.o obj2.o -o my_application

So, that’s the neat little trick I thought I’d like to share with you, maybe it will help some of you out there to organise the way your projects run, as of course it isn’t just useful for closed source, this is useful for any project that has to use a specific library version in order to work properly!

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13 Responses to “Our new way to meet the LGPL”

  1. That’s a neat trick – thanks for mention it. Is this special way of quoting it “\$$ORIGIN” within the gcc command also valid in make or even cmake scripts?

    Using rpath with absolute pathnames are ok in rpm packages. Do you never consider to deliver one .rpm and one .deb package instead of your installer. Does the installer really have more advantages that installing the game without root permissions?

  2. michael says:

    The problem is that we could do deb and rpm (doubling the workload and, as you say, requiring root access), but then there are still dozens of distros that don’t use either. It is my personal opinion that packages like that are very very good for system level things that applications depend on, but applications themselves, where nothing depends ON them, it isn’t too important because you don’t break a dependency chain by having different install/update methods to worry about.
    Also, for some of our games, we wouldn’t have the space for two packages on the disc!

  3. michael says:

    Sorry forgot to reply to the first point – The \$$ORIGIN is for use within Makefiles, as a makefile uses $ as a special character. You SHOULD be able to get away with just $ORIGIN on the commandline (not tested but I think its that way)

  4. GBGames says:

    Wow, thanks for posting this! I know I was struggling with this issue when I released my game.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. Binary compatibility across distributions has always been a nightmare for commercial developers. I wrote about this in a series of articles on gamedev.net, and shared some great tips given me by Gerry Jo Jellestad for achieving binary compatibility. This could be a good alternative to using a startup script to set the LD_LIBRARY_PATH and run the game. I’ll have to experiment with this a bit, and perhaps update my articles.

    Troy Hepfner
    My Game Company

  6. I assume this takes precedence over system libraries in which case you would need to rename the “lib” directory in the game directory to something else “lib.disabled” or similar.

  7. florb says:

    /bin/sh is required to be a posix compliant shell on linux nowadays though.

    If $ORIGIN isn’t even mentioned in the manual, can you rely on it? (I don’t know, maybe it’s in the ELF standard or something).

    • Yeah, its not documented but its supported everywhere, we ship to people that use just aboit every linux distro under the sun, and they all work.

      • I think you’re confusing “it happens to work everywhere” with “it is supported everywhere”.

        POSIX sh syntax is supported everywhere. If you ever discover a distro that has a non-POSIX /bin/sh, and report it as a bug, they will treat it seriously and fix it. $ORIGIN is a non-standard feature of GNU ld.

        Granted, given that it’s documented, it will probably work everywhere forever anyway, but it’s more likely that a weird distro will switch to a different linker with slightly different rules, than switch to a standards-violating shell.

  8. mark says:

    Still trying to understand but I do have one question – why is this not documented when it quite obviously is useful?

  9. lars says:

    I just found out about $ORIGIN recently too, and was just as excited as you are.

    $ORIGIN is indeed in the man pages for ld and, more importantly, ld.so (there’s a copy here: http://www.kernel.org/doc/man-pages/online/pages/man8/ld.so.8.html). The explanation there shows that this is an explicitly supported feature.

  10. Kyle says:

    $ORIGIN or ${ORIGIN} is documented in the man page for ld.so(8) and referenced in the man page for ld(1)

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