The idea behind open-source access to what would otherwise potentially be considered proprietary information is one that has risen in importance with the expansion of the use of the web. While the term is commonly used to refer to open-source software code, it can refer to the open access to any product’s design. It allows for a collaborative effort to ensue, with those accessing the open-source information able to modify the information or code and publish it back to the community at large.
Proponents of open-source point to the ways in which it can generate and promote innovation in research and technology. Jeff DeGraff argued that unrestricted access to designs, products, and ideas allows those with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to be creative. Those innovators can take an idea in its existing form and make it better, ultimately sharing it with the world. In an article for ZDNet, Harish Pillay championed open-source access as a way to harness the power of the collective and ultimately make the world a better place, creating new and better products at a pace never before seen.
Companies around the globe have embraced the open source model as a means to improve their products and contribute to their fields. ZDNet shared the results of the 2015 Future of Open Source Survey showing that sixty-six percent of all respondents said their companies create software for customers built on open source. Ninety-three percent of respondents stated that company use of open source had either increased or remained the same in the last twelve months. Companies such as Apple and Microsoft have made their programming language and core technologies available to the public in recent years, giving more credibility to the use of open-source in industry. Interestingly, the survey results point to security as a large reason why companies are choosing open-source over proprietary solutions.
There are, of course, ethical considerations when deciding whether or not to use open-source information or to share software or digital works with others. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University outlined several of these considerations, the most significant of which may be intellectual property protection. Sharing information in this way removes any financial incentive to the developer and may therefore actually discourage innovation. Now, the Future of Open Source Survey results seem to convey that businesses do not feel this way, but it is possible that it could influence the individual developer. Berry (2004) noted that increases copyright protections implemented by private companies for digital works removes a level of flexibility for researchers that could be avoided if academic research, like software code, was shared in an open-source manner.
Intellectual property concerns are particularly important for individual developers and smaller companies, who must place some trust in larger business or others to avoid violating easy to follow requirements associated with free software licenses. Those companies that use open-source software code, but do not provide it are being held accountable in some cases by groups like gpl-violations.org, the number of reports of such violations only continues to rise. Further complicating the issue is the presence of software piracy, which Santillanes and Felder (2015) found further reduces incentive for developers to share their work at all.
On the other side of the coin, some consider free software to be a matter of liberty and free speech. The idea is sharing open-source code or products contributes to the common good by allowing a community to improve and update nearly anything for the benefit of all. Richard Stallman is quoted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics on the virtue of the free software movement saying, “this spirit of goodwill – the spirit of helping your neighbor, voluntarily – is society’s most important resource.” Berry and Giles (2006) noted that the open-source community contributes to the democratizing of e-government, extending transparency and accountability.
Perhaps there is not one good answer to the question of ethics surrounding open-source sharing of software and other information. One encouraging development is that many companies are developing their own codes of conduct surrounding open source including Python, Ubuntu, and the Django Project. As information shared on the web continues to move away from proprietary in nature and more towards open source, individuals and companies will need to weigh all sides of the ethical arguments surrounding this topic and be aware of how they will inevitably evolve over time.
-The Ayes Have It
Berry, D. M., & Giles, M. (2006). Free and open-source software: Opening and democratizing e-government’s black box. Information Polity, 11(1), 21-34.
Santillanes, G., & Felder, R. M. (2015). Software piracy in research: A moral analysis. Science & Engineering Ethics, 21(4), 967-977. doi:10.1007/s11948-014-9573-5