Ethics of Open Source Software

There is a heated debate concerning the distribution of open source software. Some people have even dedicated their life’s work to the issue. Richard Stallman, seen as the father of the open source movement, stated in his announcement to create a fully open software system, “So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software [GNU] so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free” (Stallman 1983). Why would using closed software violate someone’s principles? Is it more ethical to have open source software?

To answer the question on whether this is ethical, we must decide what our goals are. These goals could be different depending which angle you look at them from. From the corporation’s perspective, it is assumed the main goal is maximizing revenue. In stark contrast, a consumer may have the goal of getting the most value for the least price. Even further, different philosophical perspectives should be examined. What about a rights perspective? Do the developers have a strong right to close all of their software? What about the people to see behind-the-scene code on their devices? The Utilitarian perspective may propose that free access to all information allows for the most utility because anyone could improve upon what is already there. On the other hand, the Utilitarian perspective could argue for closed software because there is a stronger incentive to develop for it. This would perhaps be financial or the incentive to be recognized as “the single creator” of the software, something of prestige (“Unavoidable Ethical Questions”, 2013). Plainly, this is a complicated issue and needs to be factored down to a more manageable size for our purposes.

I will examine a few key issues in the debate. One issue of critical concern is that of monetary revenue. I feel as though this is frequently misunderstood and I am not alone. Open source software is not necessarily free. Although open source is very similar to the idea of free software, “free software” does not mean free (Stallman 2007). The freedom comes from the ability to alter source code and to be away from the tight holds of certain vendors. Also, open source is not really meant to be used for commercial applications. However, there is still a problem with how money is made with open source software. If you can copy the software and redistribute it, how is it making money?  This is answered by the millions of dollars being spent to build the software. Although much of it is built for free and isn’t the sole project for developers, a lot of money does get spent. It is hard but funding through non-profit organizations and crowd-sourcing happens (Lunduke 2013). Along the same lines, open source software is actually commonly used in proprietary software. It is built upon and then redistributed under different licensing (Wolpe 2013). This is a whole new issue that open source has to face.

In my opinion, this is the most fascinating facet of the open source/free software debate. It is now common practice for large, closed, and highly capital-oriented companies to use the open software in their own projects (Lerner & Tirole 2002). This could reasonably lead to a contamination of motives for open source developers. It also seems to go against the “righteousness” of the free software movement. Their ideas and work benefit the evil closed systems. However, this must be fair game at the same time. The free software manifesto forbids discrimination of users (Stallman 2007).

Another issue cited in the debate is that of personal glory and reputation among developers and distributers. When people work hard on something they want a lot of credit. However, I see this as a superficial problem that has been plainly overcome. Most computer science students will recognize the name Linus Torvalds, creator of the open source operating system Linux.

So what is the solution? There does not appear to be a clear one. A lot of software is not distributed with a dual license, both open and closed in some respects. Others have proposed subsidizing open source software by governments (Schmidt & Schnitzer 2003). Still others have set forth guidelines to determine when a project should be open sourced or closed (Lerner & Tirole 2002). The issue is close to many people and I have no doubt the debate will carry on.


Works Cited

Lerner, J. and Tirole, J. (2002), Some Simple Economics of Open Source. The Journal of Industrial Economics, 50: 197–234. doi: 10.1111/1467-6451.00174

Lunduke, B. (2013, August 7). Open source gets its own crowd-funding site, with bounties included. Network World. Retrieved November 13, 2013, from

Schmidt, K. M., & Schnitzer, M. (n.d.). Centre for Economic Policy Research.TIIP Newsletter. Retrieved November 13, 2013, from

Stallman, R. (n.d.). The GNU Operating System. Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software. Retrieved November 13, 2013, from

Unavoidable Ethical Questions About Open Source. (n.d.). Unavoidable Ethical Questions About Open Source. Retrieved November 13, 2013, from

Wolpe, T. (2013, May 30). Open source: Its true cost and where it’s going awry by Monty Widenius. ZDNet. Retrieved November 13, 2013, from


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