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Open Source / Operations / Tech Careers / Tech Culture

Entrepreneurship for Engineers: Open Source Company Ethics

Is it ethical to make an open source product commercial? Your first ethical obligation is to yourself and your employees, say founders.
Feb 9th, 2024 11:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback and ideas for future columns.

There are ethical tensions in running any business, and there are ethical tensions when running an open source project. But what specific ethical considerations might there be when you’re running an open source company?

In some cases, open source maintainers and contributors worry that the software they create will be used in ways that they don’t find ethical. A commercial company’s leaders could always refuse to do business with an entity they despise — at least they can if their company isn’t public.

Even in the case of a commercial company refusing to sell software because it disagrees with how it would be used, the ethical questions aren’t always straightforward. If, in refusing to do business with this “evil” organization the company can’t make payroll, or has to lay off some employees — was it still an ethically sound choice?

Indeed, in thinking about ethics in business it’s important to consider the impact of any action on all of the stakeholders. Ethics in open source businesses are more complicated simply because there are more stakeholders — and also because some of those stakeholders are very noisy.

The Web of Ethical Obligations

As the founder of a company, you have a series of ethical obligations to different stakeholders, both in your business as well as personal relationships, said Matt Butcher, co-founder and CEO of Fermyon, who also has a doctorate in philosophy.

You have an ethical obligation to yourself to not burn out; you have an ethical obligation to your family to not neglect them, financially or otherwise. If you’re working 80-hour weeks, so busy you forget to pick up your kids from school and are living in poverty, you aren’t behaving ethically toward yourself or your family.

When you’re running a business, you also have an ethical responsibility to your employees — as well as a legal responsibility. But even if you follow all the employment laws, when an employee takes a bet on your company you are promising to pay them a paycheck every month and to make working for you better than the opportunities they turned down.

“Now you’ve got people who are depending on you for paying their mortgage, for buying their groceries, for paying for health care and things like that,” Butcher said.

You also have an ethical responsibility to your customers — to deliver on the contracts you’ve signed and to provide quality software. If you’ve taken venture funding, you have an ethical obligation to your investors to give them a return on their investment.

All of the above apply to any company. And there are tensions — sometimes your obligations to your employees (and to yourself) could be at odds with the obligation to provide good returns for your investors.

But for open source businesses, you have the added complexity of even more ethical obligations: To all of your open source users, who depend on your software working, and to your contributors. And sometimes those obligations can be in direct conflict with the other ethical obligations.

“Because then free, free as in ‘free beer,’ starts to be a thing that seems at least superficially to be antithetical to making revenue and paying your paychecks,” Butcher said.

Open Source Expectations

“In some cases, open source communities will for some reason believe that you are ethically obligated to give them everything for free, or to work for them for free,” Butcher said.

“I had somebody open an issue on one of my issue queues when I was a young open source developer. The issue said, ‘Here’s a feature I need, here’s your timeline for doing it. If you aren’t finished by May I’m going to stop using your project and tell everybody you’re doing a bad job.’”

This kind of thing can happen in open source communities, Butcher said, but that is a misunderstanding of the ethical and contractual obligations that come with being an open source maintainer and user — no maintainer is obligated to do work for free.

Collecting Data

And then there are questions about data collection. Sometimes things can happen accidentally; you have a privacy-first project but have Google analytics embedded on your website, for example.

“There are some people who will tell you that you are just evil because you say something, but you don’t do what you pretend to be,” said Gaël Duval, CEO of Murena, a de-Googled smartphone company.

The key to all kinds of data collection is transparency, and if the data collection is done in a transparent manner, there’s no ethical problem.

Moving Away from Open Source

One of the issues that comes up for open source communities, and open source businesses, is what happens if a company decides to move away from the open source license (as HashiCorp did in August, moving Terraform to a Business Source License). Is that unethical?

“I don’t see any problem with this, actually,” Duval said. “If they think it’s the way to go for their business, I don’t see this as unethical, because probably if they don’t do it they will go out of business.”

In fact, when Butcher talked about the different ethical obligations, the point he made is that of all the stakeholders, perhaps the most important ethical obligation of a company is to employees — so, in fact, sticking with open source and laying off employees is a less ethical choice than abandoning open source and continuing to pay salaries.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: fermyon.
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