Case IV: Ownership of Programs
In this case we consider who owns programs: the programmer, the employer, the manager, or all. From a legal standpoint, most rights belong to the employer, as presented earlier in this chapter. However, this case expands on that position by presenting several competing arguments that might be used to support positions in this case. As described in the previous section, legal controls for secrecy of programs can be complicated, time consuming, and expensive to apply. In this case we search for individual ethical controls that can prevent the need to appeal to the legal system.
Greg is a programmer working for a large aerospace firm, Star Computers, which works on many government contracts; Cathy is Greg's supervisor. Greg is assigned to program various kinds of simulations.
To improve his programming abilities, Greg writes some programming tools, such as a cross-reference facility and a program that automatically extracts documentation from source code. These are not assigned tasks for Greg; he writes them independently and uses them at work, but he does not tell anyone about them. Greg has written them in the evenings, at home, on his personal computer.
Greg decides to market these programming aids by himself. When Star's management hears of this, Cathy is instructed to tell Greg that he has no right to market these products since, when he was employed, he signed a form stating that all inventions become the property of the company. Cathy does not agree with this position because she knows that Greg has done this work on his own. She reluctantly tells Greg that he cannot market these products. She also asks Greg for a copy of the products.
Cathy quits working for Star and takes a supervisory position with Purple Computers, a competitor of Star. She takes with her a copy of Greg's products and distributes it to the people who work with her. These products are so successful that they substantially improve the effectiveness of her employees, and Cathy is praised by her management and receives a healthy bonus. Greg hears of this, and contacts Cathy, who contends that because the product was determined to belong to Star and because Star worked largely on government funding, the products were really in the public domain and therefore they belonged to no one in particular.
This case certainly has major legal implications. Probably everyone could sue everyone else and, depending on the amount they are willing to spend on legal expenses, they could keep the cases in the courts for several years. Probably no judgment would satisfy all.
Let us set aside the legal aspects and look at the ethical issues. We want to determine who might have done what, and what changes might have been possible to prevent a tangle for the courts to unscramble.
First, let us explore the principles involved.
Rights. What are the respective rights of Greg, Cathy, Star, and Purple?
Basis. What gives Greg, Cathy, Star, and Purple those rights? What principles of fair play, business, property rights, and so forth are involved in this case?
Priority. Which of these principles are inferior to which others? Which ones take precedence? (Note that it may be impossible to compare two different rights, so the outcome of this analysis may yield some rights that are important but that cannot be ranked first, second, third.)
Additional information. What additional facts do you need in order to analyze this case? What assumptions are you making in performing the analysis?
Next, we want to consider what events led to the situation described and what alternative actions could have prevented the negative outcomes.
What could Greg have done differently before starting to develop his product? After developing the product? After Cathy explained that the product belonged to Star?
What could Cathy have done differently when she was told to tell Greg that his products belonged to Star? What could Cathy have done differently to avert this decision by her management? What could Cathy have done differently to prevent the clash with Greg after she went to work at Purple?
What could Purple have done differently upon learning that it had products from Star (or from Greg)?
What could Greg and Cathy have done differently after Greg spoke to Cathy at Purple?
What could Star have done differently to prevent Greg from feeling that he owned his products? What could Star have done differently to prevent Cathy from taking the products to Purple?