Flaming Dangerzone

Rule of Zero


In C++ the destructors of objects with automatic storage duration are invoked whenever their scope ends. This property is often used to handle cleanup of resources automatically in a pattern known by the not very descriptive name RAII.

An essential part of RAII is the concept of resource ownership: the object responsible for cleaning up a resource in its destructor owns that resource. Proper ownership policies are the secret to avoid resource leaks.

Implementing ownership policies can be tedious and error-prone work. Many articles and even books have been written to provide guidance and rules of thumb to help programmers with that task.

The good thing about C++ is that it allows us to encapsulate those ownership policies into generic reusable classes. This can greatly reduce the effort of handling ownership in other classes.

Value semantics

When we pass objects by value in C++, they get copied. If we want to store a value as a member, we use a non-pointer object member, to avoid running into dangling references immediately. Whenever we want a function to handle a copy of an argument, we can take that argument by value. If we want to handle the same object without making a copy, we can take that argument by reference (i.e. with a reference type).

Using value semantics is essential for RAII, because references don’t affect the lifetime of their referrents. Unfortunately, the default value semantics don’t interact very well with the idea of ownership described above.

Rule of Three

What happens when a copy of an object that owns a resource is made? By default a memberwise copy is performed. This means that the internal resource handle the object stores will be copied, ending up with two objects that own the same resource. This is likely to lead to them both trying to release the resource, and catastrophe follows.

Fortunately, C++ allows programmers to define what value semantics means for a class, by providing user-defined copy constructors and copy assignment operators.

To get consistent and correct behaviour, one has to pay close attention to how these user-defined functions interoperate. This idea is commonly known as the Rule of Three:

If a class defines a destructor, copy constructor or copy assignment operator then it should probably explicitly define all three, and not rely on their default implementation.

To solve this conflict between value semantics and ownership, one can take several approaches. Common choices include:

  1. do not allow copies to be made;
  2. provide custom copy semantics that copy the resource;
  3. make both objects have ownership of the resource;
  4. make copying transfer the resource;

Option #1 gives exclusive ownership of a resource to a single object and does not allow that ownership to be transferred to another object. This is quite limiting since it prevents passing or returning those resources by value, and requires the use of pointers or references instead. Making it a member of another class also makes that class non-copyable, even if copies are desirable. An example of a class with this policy is boost::scoped_ptr.

Option #2 also gives exclusive ownership to a single object, but emulates the “normal” value semantics for the resource. This is useful for polymorphic classes to avoid the slicing problem, and for other resources for which a copy can be made easily (POSIX file descriptors is a possible example, since they can be copied with dup).

Option #3 shares the ownership between the two objects. This one can be quite tricky to implement, especially in a thread-safe manner. Common implementations maintain a reference count that tracks how many instances own the resource, and delete it when it reaches zero. Both Boost and the latest standard provide this policy in the form of shared_ptr.

Option #4 gives exclusive ownership but allows that ownership to be transferred. This is what std::auto_ptr does, and it is known for not being a particularly good approach (in fact, std::auto_ptr is now a deprecated feature).

Obviously, many more reasonable ownership policies can be invented.

Rule of Five

Come C++11 there are some extra options for our ownership policies. With move semantics in the mix, we can now provide options for transferring ownership between objects that are safer than option #4 above.

Option #1 can be improved to allow transferring ownership by adding a move constructor and a move assignment operator. This makes it a lot more usable and a lot more useful. It can be returned from functions and passed by value to transfer ownership. An example of this is std::unique_ptr, the first choice when one needs a smart pointer.

Option #2 can also benefit from having the move special members, since it avoids unneeded copies. In option #3 it gives the ability to transfer ownership without the need to update reference counts.

Option #4 was not very good to start with. Since it basically boils down to an attempt at move semantics with the copy special members, option #1 is preferrable. This is the reason std::auto_ptr was deprecated in favour of std::unique_ptr.

Rule of Zero

The rule of three and a solid understanding of the different ownership strategies are essential to writing well-behaved classes and programs. However, getting it right is often tricky and can soon become overwhelming, if you try to go solely by these rules of thumb. Fixating too much on them can make one miss the forest for the trees.

I’d go so far as to claim that these rules are rarely needed. Why is that? Well, as I mentioned in the introduction on ownership, C++ allows us to encapsulate ownership policies into generic reusable classes. This is the important bit! Most often, our ownership needs can be catered for by “ownership-in-a-package” classes.

Common “ownership-in-a-package” classes are included in the standard library: std::unique_ptr and std::shared_ptr. Through the use of custom deleter objects, both have been made flexible enough to manage virtually any kind of resource.

As an example, let’s write a class that owns a HMODULE resource from the Windows API. A HMODULE (a type alias for void*) is a handle to a loaded module, usually a DLL. It must be released by passing it to the FreeLibrary function.

One option would be to implement a class that follows the rule of three (or five).

class module {
    explicit module(std::wstring const& name)
    : handle { ::LoadLibrary(name.c_str()) } {}

    // move constructor
    module(module&& that)
    : handle { that.handle } {
        that.handle = nullptr;
    // copy constructor is implicitly forbidden due to user-defined move constructor

    // move assignment
    module& operator=(module&& that) {
        module copy { std::move(that) };
        std::swap(handle, copy.handle);
        return *this;
    // copy assignment is implicitly forbidden due to user-defined move assignment

    // destructor
    ~module() {

    // other module related functions go here

    HMODULE handle;

But why would anyone want to do that when you can just grab an existing reusable ownership policy instead and get the same effect?

class module {
    explicit module(std::wstring const& name)
    : handle { ::LoadLibrary(name.c_str()), &::FreeLibrary } {}

    // other module related functions go here

    using module_handle = std::unique_ptr<void, decltype(&::FreeLibrary)>;

    module_handle handle;

Believe it or not, this does exactly the same thing as the first version, but all lifetime members have been implicitly defined by the compiler. This has several advantages:

To illustrate the last bullet, consider a class that owns two resources. How would the constructor be written in an exception-safe manner?

struct something {
    : resource_one { new foo }
    , resource_two { new foo } // what if this throws?
    // blah
    foo* resource_one;
    foo* resource_two;

If the construction of resource_two throws, the resource_one needs to be cleaned up. This can certainly be done, but it further complicates the code and is easily overlooked.

Instead, if we reuse ownership policies (e.g. by using std::unique_ptr<foo> instead of foo*), the cleanup will be automatic even in the face of exceptions during construction.

If we want some ownership policy that the existing classes don’t provide, we can just write a new “ownership-in-a-package” class and reap the same benefits. The code will have to deal with that ownership somewhere, and having it isolated in a separate place makes it easier to maintain.

So, we have arrived at the Rule of Zero (which is actually a particular instance of the Single Responsibility Principle):

Classes that have custom destructors, copy/move constructors or copy/move assignment operators should deal exclusively with ownership. Other classes should not have custom destructors, copy/move constructors or copy/move assignment operators.

Special thanks to sehe for taking the time for a thorough review of this post and several suggestions

I gave a talk for the C++ User Group Berlin on 19th November 2013. Unfortunately there is no video available, but you can have a look at the slides I used.