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Unavoidable Ethical Questions About Open Source

This resource is based on the approaches to ethics outlined in the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ Framework for Ethical Decision Making.

From a Utilitarian Perspective
Questions about the greatest good vis-à-vis open source software mirror larger discussions about intellectual property protection. Is human knowledge advanced by full and free access to all information, allowing engineers and developers to correct and improve on already existing systems? Or does a lack of strong protection for IP discourage innovation by removing the financial incentive for developing it? What is the balance of these potential benefits over these potential harms?

From a Rights Perspective
According to the Free Software Foundation, free software “is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’” Classically, free speech is understood as a right, but is this a useful way to think about open source software? Is there anything in the nature of software that would give people a right to it in the same way that we have a right to speech?

From a Fairness Perspective
Is it fair to expect software developers to create and distribute their intellectual product without restrictions while we do not expect the same from other inventors or producers?

From a Common Good Perspective
The Vatican document “Ethics in Internet” argues that “use of the new information technology…needs to be informed and guided by a resolute commitment to the practice of solidarity in the service of the common good.” Flowing from this view, the document says that “cyberspace ought to be a resource of comprehensive information and services available without charge to all, and in a wide range of languages. The winner in this process will be humanity as a whole and not just a wealthy elite that controls science, technology, and the planet's resources.” Is this view applicable to software as well?

From a Virtue Perspective
Richard Stallman, often called the founder of the free software movement, has argued that “for beings that can think and learn, sharing useful knowledge is a fundamental act of friendship. When these beings use computers, this act of friendship takes the form of sharing software…. This spirit of goodwill—the spirit of helping your neighbor, voluntarily—is society's most important resource. It makes the difference between a livable society and a dog-eat-dog jungle.” But to others, “sharing” software is like having to consent to its theft because the sharer is giving away someone’s work product, which is the result of sweat and ingenuity and which has monetary value, as well. Will open source inculcate the virtues of friends or of thieves?

Jan 1, 2005

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