4.10. Ownership

4.10.1. Unowned References

Normally when creating an object in Vala you are returned a reference to it. Specifically this means that as well as being passed a pointer to the object in memory, it is also recorded in the object itself that this pointer exists. Similarly, whenever another reference to the object is created, this is also recorded. As an object knows how many references there are to it, it can automatically be removed when needed. This is the basis of memory management.

4.10.2. Methods ownership

Unowned references conversely are not recorded in the object they reference. This allows the object to be removed when it logically should be, regardless of the fact that there might be still references to it The usual way to achieve this is with a method defined to return an unowned reference, e.g.:

class Test {
    private Object o;

    public unowned Object get_unowned_ref() {
        this.o = new Object();
        return this.o;

When calling this method, in order to collect a reference to the returned object, you must expect to receive a weak reference:

unowned Object o = get_unowned_ref();

The reason for this seemingly over complicated example because of the concept of ownership.

  • If the Object “o” was not stored in the class, then when the method “get_unowned_ref” returned, “o” would become unowned (i.e. there would be no references to it). If this were the case, the object would be deleted and the method would never return a valid reference.

  • If the return value was not defined as unowned, the ownership would pass to the calling code. The calling code is, however, expecting an unowned reference, which cannot receive the ownership.

If the calling code is written as

Object o = get_unowned_ref();

Vala will try to either obtain a reference of or a duplicate of the instance the unowned reference pointing to.

4.10.3. Properties ownership

In contrast to normal methods, properties always have unowned return value. That means you can’t return a new object created within the get method. That also means, you can’t use an owned return value from a method call. The somewhat irritating fact is because of that a property value is owned by the object that has this property. A call to obtain this property value should not steal or reproduce (by duplicating, or increasing the reference count of) the value from the object side.

As such, the following example will result in a compilation error:

public Object property {
    get {
        return new Object();   // WRONG: property returns an unowned reference,
                               // the newly created object will be deleted when
                               // the getter scope ends the caller of the
                               // getter ends up receiving an invalid reference
                               // to a deleted object.

nor can you do this:

public string property {
    get {
        return getter_method();   // WRONG: for the same reason above.

public string getter_method() {
    return "some text"; // "some text" is duplicated and returned at this point.

on the other hand, this is perfectly fine

public string property {
    get {
        return getter_method();   // GOOD: getter_method returns an unowned value

public unowned string getter_method() {
    return "some text";
    // Don't be alarmed that the text is not assigned to any strong variable.
    // Literal strings in Vala are always owned by the program module itself,
    // and exist as long as the module is in memory

The unowned modifier can be used to make automatic property’s storage unowned. That means

public unowned Object property { get; private set; }

is identical to

private unowned Object _property;

public Object property {
    get { return _property; }

The keyword owned can be used to specifically ask a property to return a owned reference of the value, therefore causing the property value be reproduced in the object side. Think twice before adding the owned keyword. Is it a property or simply a get_xxx method? There may also be problems in your design. Anyways, the following code is a correct segment:

public owned Object property { owned get { return new Object(); } }

Unowned references play a similar role to pointers which are described later. They are however much simpler to use than pointers, as they can be easily converted to normal references. However, in general they should not be widely used in the programs unless you know what you are doing.

4.10.4. Ownership Transfer

The keyword owned is used to transfer ownership.

  • As a prefix of a parameter type, it means that ownership of the object is transferred into this code context.

  • As an type conversion operator, it can be used to avoid duplicating non-reference counting classes, which is usually impossible in Vala. For example,

Foo foo = (owned) bar;

This means that bar will be set to null and foo inherits the reference/ownership of the object bar references.