Ethics, employment and free software

Ethics, employment and free software

Like most people around the world, I have to work to earn a living. And again, like the vast majority of these people, often my work requires me to carry out tasks that I might otherwise find ethically problematic. As a supporter of free culture, I have often found it difficult to reconcile my own convictions on issues such as copyright and DRM with those of my employers. In my current job, this has not been a regular problem. However, I have to confess that in the past I have worked for a subsidiary of one of the 'Big Four' record labels, and therefore an active campaigner for extension to copyright term and DRM anti-circumvention legislation, and a track record of extorting money from alleged p2p file-sharers.

Needless to say, even as someone who at that point was only vaguely aware of digital rights issues, this left a very bad taste in my mouth. As I gradually became more and more aware of what my employers were up to, I, not surprisingly, found it less and less difficult to reconcile my burgeoning awareness of the importance of digital rights with the fact that I was directly supporting a company who was dedicated to trampling all over them. Sooner or later I began to look for new employment, because (among other reasons, admittedly) I was unhappy with compromising my principles in this way.

This may be a comparitively extreme example, but there are many situations in which reconciling our duties as employees with our individual ethical principles can become a dilemma - and, for supporters of free software and/or free culture, I would expect (for most people in jobs like mine, at least) this to be a very common occurrence. From developers working at a company that enforces software patents, to GNU/Linux users who simply have to log on to an MS Windows desktop every day at 9, employment often entails sacrifice in this respect. The question is, how best should we reconcile these ethical dilemmas?

Crosbie Fitch has written about this issue both on his website and in comments on slashdot, suggesting the formulation of a 'Hippocratic oath' for artists working in the free culture community, and developers who object to software patents. While I am extremely enthusiastic about this idea, I assume that a 'critical mass' of artists and/or developers would need to have sworn this oath before it had any tangible practical effect. Also, given the trend for outsourcing in IT, and the notorious overcrowding and competitiveness of the so-called 'Creative Industries', I suspect that it might take a while to reach that critical mass, at least while less scrupulous employees are readily available.

On the other hand, it could, I suppose, be possible to treat this conflict as an opportunity to evangelise on behalf of the free software community. Preaching to the converted is a pointless activity, so what better place to extol the virtues of free software than in a company or department that exclusively uses proprietary software? Admittedly, a reasonable level of seniority might be required to do this effectively - CTOs are likely to be more succesful than helpdesk staff if the goal is to change company policy.

So, for discussion: do you find that a commitment to free software or free culture conflicts with your working duties? and how best should we reconcile these dilemmas?

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thlinux's picture
Submitted by thlinux on

I can understand this being an ethical dilemma. However, maybe you didn't look closely enough at what you may have accomplished from within. Look at Microsoft. There are daily reports showing their desire to start working with the Linux community. I have no delusions of an OpenWindows initiative, but due largely to employee Linux use, Microsoft is looking at the Linux community and seeing the potential in various areas. The movie and music communities will need intelligent employees to overcome the issues with piracy and DRM. If all the employees who want to see the system change leave the company, all that will be left is close-minded fools. These "fools" only know to file lawsuits to recuperate lost revenue streams. Neither the lawsuits or the piracy is helping the industry, the artists, or the customers.

Terry Hancock's picture

There's no point in having a world full of "ethical" but unemployed artists. I think the important thing is to establish more and better safe zones for free arts, more than to make rash oaths about what you will or will not accept from existing employers. There's not much point until you have a way to make the system you want viable in itself.

Crosbie Fitch's picture

We probably need various levels:

NOVICE - Some of my work is or will be published as free culture.
ACOLYTE - All my spare-time work will now always be free culture.
JOURNEYMAN - All my self-employed/freelance work will now also always be free culture.
PURITAN - All my permanently employed and other work-for-hire work will now also always be, free culture.
ASCETIC - I also will never again attempt to use, purchase, promote, perform, nor benefit from non-free works.
HERMIT - Until copyright, patents, and other restraints on the public are dissolved I shall remain isolated and self-sufficient to avoid even any indirect benefit from anyone else's exploitation of non-free culture.

I think I make it to the Journeyman level. The Puritan level for me would be like becoming vegetarian having not eaten meat for a very long time: not exactly difficult, and whilst ethically agreeable would be quite a commitment nevertheless. It could happen soon though...

Author information

Tim Cowlishaw's picture


Tim is a Free Culture and Digital Rights activist (amongst other things) from London, UK. He also writes a sporadically updated and chaotically disorganised weblog at