The Ethics of Open Source

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, 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

9 thoughts on “The Ethics of Open Source

  1. Nice post. As the web has become more ubiquitous and more and more devices are now interconnected (the Internet of Things), it would seem logical that open source would continue to grow. It is an interesting paradox that many companies have made lots of money building off something that is free.


  2. This is an area of great interest to me, as I’ve done a lot of work with Open Source software over the years. You present some great information; some points of view that I had not considered before!

    You hit on a great point in your discussion of the “virtue” of the open source community. This is definitely something that I’ve found to be the case. There are communities of developers the world over working to produce things to help their fellow “man.” In my previous role as a small business web developer, 99% of the websites we deployed for customers were built on Open Source platforms like Joomla (, WordPress (, and Drupal ( I was able to deploy full-featured, attractive, and functional sites for clients at a fraction what it would have cost to do those things from scratch. In this way, I tried to combat the ethical question of high-priced/high-quality by leveraging OS software and providing low-price/high-quality services for my clients. This site offers a pretty good comparison of proprietary vs. Open Source content management solutions, and I think presents some of the ethical considerations of both as well:

    So, me and my clients benefit from the inexpensive and widely supported network of Open Source CMS, but what about the developers slaving away on their extensions for open distribution? Back to the virtue question… I’ve found that many in the community will not bat an eye at paying a small price for an extension or subscribing to a paid support model in order to compensate the developers. Further, it feels like most folks are willing to contribute for free because they themselves are using someone else’s free plugin to help them maximize profits with their clients. It feels very karma-driven in the sense that what goes around comes around. Developers are willing to bank a little bit every once in awhile in the hopes of getting some benefit back in the future.

    Lerner and Triole (2000) offer another explanation for what simple altruism cannot explain. They propose “the signaling incentive” of participating in the open source community. In short, developers are often willing to forgo monetary rewards if the work allows them to generate some competitive advantage; if they can get “street cred” or “net cred” by building something or fixing a bug. So in this way, incentives are tied to position within the networked community. Referential and expert power become increasingly more important than legitimate power, especially in circles where you may only be recognized by your screen name or avatar.

    If the signaling incentive is a driver in the OS community, does that make the whole thing selfish and immoral?

    Lerner, J., & Triole, J. (2000). Some simple economics of open source. Journal of Industrial Economics, 52, 197-234.


      • Please let me echo Dr. Watwood’s thanks for bring your level of expertise to this discussion. I admit that I am a novice on the topic and selected it for research this week so I could learn a bit more. Your insight has helped to further my understanding.

        I like the idea of “street cred” for the developer that you shared. There does seem to be a certain level of pride in the developer community in contributing something larger to the field than they might be able to accomplish themselves. However, I don’t think that necessarily makes it selfish or immoral. A talented individual could choose to forego work on software or an application that could potentially be extremely lucrative in order to contribute to the field in a more holistic or virtuous way. Even if compensated by financial means or credit, would that not still be a noble sacrifice?

        I really appreciate your feedback.

        -The Ayes Have It


  3. Ayes,

    Terrific post! I really enjoyed learning about the benefits of open source and hearing the different viewpoints on software sharing. Like James, I was drawn to your discussion about the “virtue” aspect of open source and free software. A Gallup (2016) study found that Millennials want to do meaningful work (, and I have noticed that students enjoy working on socially responsible projects. Google supports Open Source projects with their Summer of Code ( One project is OpenMRS, which is an open source Medical Record System ( Some countries cannot afford the medical supplies they desperately need, so paying millions for a Medical Record System is not an option. A free MRS, running on a free Linux server, is affordable. As I learned from a student who worked on the OpenMRS project, ministering to patients in remote villages in Africa used to mean lugging huge manila folders over mountain trails. And, in much of Africa, the smartphone is the only technology available outside of the cities ( OpenMRS and a free smartphone app have eliminated the need to haul folders over mountains, and helped save lives. In this situation, it is easy to see the virtue side of open source and free software!



    • Thanks so much for your reply, CatontheKB! The story you shared helped me shape the context of how I have been viewing this topic in recent days. I am starting to think of those who develop and share software in an open-source manner like those who work in free clinics and other non-profit organizations. The contribution to the greater good can be the greatest of rewards. I can see it quite easily when it comes to the small startup or individual. What has eluded me is the driving force behind the move by big companies. As I shared earlier, large companies like Apple and Microsoft have started going the OS route. I can’t put my finger on what drives them to do so. Any thoughts?

      -The Ayes Have It


      • Ayes,

        Interesting observation that large companies are starting go the open source route. The Gartner “Hype Cycle for Open-Source Software, 2016” (Driver, 2016) might provide some insight as to why large companies are now entering the open source arena. The Hype Cycle notes that companies typically enter the open source market for reasons related to cost savings, flexibility, and innovation. The primary reason companies have entered the market over the last decade has been cost savings, but Gartner suggests that the primary reason is shifting to innovation—specifically, next-generation technology innovation. This shift might be influencing companies like Apple and Microsoft to leverage open source technologies at this juncture.



        Driver, M. (2016, July 11). Hype Cycle for Open-Source Software, 2016. Gartner. Retrieved from

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Eight Days a Week. – Cat on the Keyboard

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