Principle 1.5 - Respect for creators


There is a dichotomy in the topic, since the first paragraph talks about respecting intellectual property and the third about open source software, an avowed goal of the latter being that intellectual property is bad and should not be there. How can both be praised in the same breath as a moral compass for a scientist?

When free software is promoted, one of the means used is opening its entire source so that it is readily comprehensible to a taker, who then respects the gift and contributes further to the process, fairly. But is this actually done? How comprehensible, really, is open source and if not, then isn’t a propertied offering better usable by society? Can the dichotomy here be resolved by choosing one of the two positions and espousing it rather than being politically correct to all?


This (deliberately) doesn’t mention the term intellectual property at all. The point is that creators should be respected when choosing a particular method (if any) to protect their work, not that any particular method is good or bad. It also has a public good exception, which allows for reasonable uses of others’ work, but which should be reflected on.

While I share your concerns about comprehensibility of open source, I don’t think the Code of Ethics is the place to solve the understandability of free software options.

The point of the code is not to say “x is good, y is bad” but as a guided challenge for the reader to think about the situation and the ethical issues that might arise. Thus I’d argue strongly against coming down hard on one side or the other of this debate!


Except the statement above doesn’t specify financial remuneration; it says “appropriate credit,” and of course appropriate is one of those terms that means different things to different people in different situations. (“Unduly oppose” below is similarly reliant on the judgment of the individual.) It’s not asking people to come to a particular conclusion about what sort of credit is due, but only to acknowledge that some kind of credit is due, and that this obligation ought to figure into one’s decision making process. One could argue that this means that the statute is not specific enough in demanding particular behavior, but unless one wants to argue that making information free is actually impeded by the obligation to acknowledge the creator, I’m not sure how the text as it stands is a problem.

Of course, I also think that it’s necessary for a professional code to discuss some of the definitions of being a good human being, but I talked about that in comments on earlier sections.


While I fully agree that we should “[r]espect the work required to produce new ideas,” etc., and giving proper credit for work done by others seems to me basic academic honesty, I feel that in the details this item starts out from wrong principles.

As a note before I get into this, some of this may sound at first glance like extreme libertarianism or something like that. If it comes across that way, please try re-reading it again because I do not agree at all with extreme libertarianism and I think that IP laws can serve a socially useful purpose, though of course they can also do harm as well as good.

What we now call “intellectual property laws” are government-enforced restrictions on freedoms. They’re somewhat unusual because, unlike restrictions against theft and the like, where you deprive someone of the use of something, they disallow the use of something that would otherwise cost nobody else anything at all. (In economic terms, they’re restrictions on the use and taking of non-rvial goods.) For example, if I print copies of a book you wrote and distribute them, you do not lose anything you already had; you can still do whatever you like with your book as well and you’re not forced to pay for my printing or distribution of the book.

Societally, this is the ideal state for existing works. Progress is made by building on the work of others, and clear harm can be done to or progress as a society without this. Think of a case, for example, where someone spent several years working out a difficult mathematical proof that would be useful for my work; we can easily see the societal harm that results if I’m not allowed to use that proof in my work because it’s “owned” by someone else.

Originally, patents were exactly this: a grant from the king of a restriction on doing something that allowed certain people to profit from doing that thing because others weren’t allowed to do it. Economists call this “rent seeking” and it’s generally considered to be a bad thing; these days most people and societies agree that we shouldn’t do this.

However, later another completely separate idea arose: that it would improve our society to have more intellectual property created, and we could encourage this by somehow rewarding the people who created it. One mechanism proposed for the reward is that for a period of time we restrict the normal rights of others to use certain ideas, expressions or whatever, allowing the creators to seek rent, but this harm would be more than counterbalanced by, in the long run, having more free works floating around in our society for anyone to build on. It’s very important to note there that at its core this is not about giving or asserting creator’s rights to their non-rival creations; that’s just a mechanism to support the true aim.

And that’s why I find a statement like this objectionable:

I’d say, no, this is not right. What we’re really recognizing here is that we should limit the amount we block the (re-)use of non-rival goods. Our default starting point for thinking about this should not be “creators have rights” but “to what degree do we feel comfortable taking away the natural right to the use of any ideas you come across.”

The examples you want to be looking at are things like, “what if QuickSort were patented right now?” (Note that it does not have to be correctly patented; you’re free to assume it’s the case that the patent should not have been allowed, and would fall to a challenge if someone were willing to spend enough money and time in court.) While this example is simplified for clarity, we deal with this sort of thing all the time in the computing field, from Amazon’s “one click” patent to patents on ways of compressing data.

As a side note, also be careful with how you think about “open source.” A great deal of open source software is written by people who are committed to the idea of greatly restricting what use people may make of that software. (The GPL license is the most common way of doing this.) This isn’t always clear due to the (backwards) claims about “free as in speech vs. free as in beer” (the GPL is aimed towards the latter), but it does come out in other things that say, such as Bruno Haible’s reasoning for using the GPL for libgmp, which means if you want to use that library in your software you must give away all your source code for free: “Building libgmp.a was just too hard work. Other people shouldn’t get it for free.”


Is is possible to quote Newton here and say something about “given that we all stand on the shoulders of giants…”? I feel the big picture, aspirationally, is to remind folks of that. If I knew of a good famous quotation for moral rights of IP I’d suggest that, too, but I don’t, so I’ll leave that to another.

(The full quotation is “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” - Newton to Robert Hooke, 1676)


I am confused by the third paragraph “Efforts to help other …” It seems to imply that free and open source software is more ethical than commercial software, i.e. that Linux is more ethical than Windows or Android. I can see that such a sentiment is closer to an academic model of knowledge sharing. However, I would argue strongly that such an interpretation is very wrong, very wrong indeed. Something needs clarification, but I don’t know what.

Also, change first sentence of third paragraph to “… time and energy to projects helps society.” Many words in the sentence don’t really add much.

Also, change “reasonable use” to “fair use.” The current text is a wonderful sentiment, but “fair use” is an existing term of art.


There is nothing inherent in “open source” that is against the idea of “intellectual property”. Making some things available for everyone does not mean that everything has to be.

What this attempts to convey is that computing professionals should be open by default, and only restrict access where necessary.


The point you’re making is agreed upon, that open source is restricted.
Well then, if we are going to work with restrictions, then the dichotomy
goes away and we’re in the world of IP, where the owner controls the
restrictions and nobody else and we can praise such a world.


There is a great deal of confusion and inconsistency around the subject of Intellectual Property, even within the ACM. Perhaps entertainers can be excused for not understanding matters. Authors of Science Fiction ought to be a little more enlightened, and a few are. But us? If anyone has figured this out, shouldn’t it be us?

Firstly, the US Constitution spells out the purpose, which is to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”. Intellectual Property is only a means to that end. It is not the only means, nor is it now the best available means. Indeed, we have seen many examples in which Intellectual Property works against the purpose of promoting progress. Perhaps the system can be reformed, but it is so bad that maybe we would be better off without any patent and copyright law at all. At the least, software should never have been patentable in the US.

Copyright has harmed us all greatly. Our public libraries should have been allowed to go completely digital already. That would bring a great deal of knowledge to the public. The public pays for research through patronage of universities and their professors, and yet somehow private academic publishers are allowed to restrict access to the results. I am sorry to see that the ACM is among them. In addition, it would save the taxpayers a huge amount of money if only libraries could retire most of their printed copies in favor of digital copies available for download.

Was Aaron Swartz wrong to copy everything he could from JSTOR?

The purpose of IP is to promote science, not to grant authors control. Control is also a burden of responsibility. Let us relieve ourselves of that burden of having to judge whether a use of scientists’ discoveries or authors’ works is or is not ethical, by acknowledging that there is no practical way to enforce control. I’d like to see all mention of “control of a work” stricken from the code.

Really, I find it embarrassing that the code appears to imply that control is possible. Another implication of this thinking is a sort of individualism, as if no one else can or will ever come up with the same idea, which is clearly nonsense. We like to think we’re uniquely talented that way. Intellectual Property plays us all, appealing to our vanity and our fear of loss. A century from now, if anyone reads this code, they may well find such sentiments laughably naive.


I think it’s fairly inappropriate to suggest that copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and NDAs are at all compatible with the rest of the code of ethics.

I do not think it would be appropriate, for example, for an ACM member to work for John Deere and aid in locking farmers out of their tractors so that they can not repair or modify them using the whole pile of above methodologies.

While acknowledging creators is important, and there is perhaps a role for of the mentioned legal mechanisms in society, we also know that they are used again and again as tools of abuse, whether it’s hiding sexual harassment behind an NDA, using the DMCA to try and silence criticism, or something else (like preventing farmers from working on their own tractors).

In general I think it’s appropriate for professional ethics to be oriented towards the sunny and not the shadowy and the privileged reference in 1.5 suggesting respect towards these frequently misused tools does not error on the sunny side, but rather seems to be there as a shield for violating the spirit of previously proposed sections like 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3.