Computer Ethics: Whose Program Is This?

Ellen Pederson worked for the Apollo Group as a programmer.  Her primary responsibility was the development of an online accounts payable system, which became known as U-PAY. Ellen had worked on this system for over two years before it was released. Unfortunately, Ellen’s boss took much of the credit for the project despite the fact that his input was limited. Ellen put in long hours to make the application work.  She did receive a decent pay increase and a small bonus for ther substantial efforts, but she was quite chagrined that she did not receive the credit or recognition for this project that she deserved.

Ellen became disenchanted with Apollo, and looked around for a new job.  In an interview with one of Apollo’s competitors, the director of IT asked to see some of Ellen’s work.  Ellen showed the director a demo of U-PAY along with some of the code she had written for the system.

After being hired by this company, Ellen was asked to build a system “similar to U-PAY.”  Ellen realized that in order to finish her assignment on time, she would need to borrow heavily from her previous work.  If Ellen used the same design specs she used at Apollo and certain modules of code, she could finish on time.

Ellen utilized a copy of the U-PAY design specs and the source code that she had written for Apollo to build the system.  She felt that she would not be depriving Apollo of anything.  This was a generic application that did not involve any competitive information.  As long as Apollo had an efficient U-PAY system, what difference did it make if another company — even a competitor — had the same thing?

Do you think Ellen was justified in her decision?

What if Ellen also utilized U-PAY code that her team had written in addition to her own code?  Would that make a difference?

What if Apollo never implemented the U-PAY system.  Would that make a difference?

excerpts and adaptations from “Case Studies in Information Technology Ethics” by Richard A. Spinello

About Jack Myers

Married for over 20 years and proud father of a daughter and two sons in college. Extended family includes 5 bro/sis in-laws, 21 nieces/ nephews (and their children), 2 dogs, a cat and a snake. Currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Computer Science at Rowan University and serving as an instructor for Camden County College and elsewhere. Formerly led Pfizer’s BT Engagement Partner team and other technology teams at Wyeth, SmithKline Beckman and Centocor including Project Management, Portfolio Management, Identity Management, IT Security, Global Architecture and application development teams focusing on Information Management, Clinical Data Management, Regulatory Submissions and Processes, and Patient Safety.


Computer Ethics: Whose Program Is This? — 14 Comments

  1. I mean if Ellen truly loved her job there, working with the Apollo Group then she would never have showed the same system to the competitors. But she did say it was a generic application that didn’t involve any competitive information, so her decision was reasonable. Now if she used her team’s codes including her own, that can be a different situation considering the fact that its not fully her work. its her team members that developed the code also. So if Apollo never implemented the U-PAY system, then it shouldn’t be a problem, he isn’t using it. someone can implement the system first.

    • Good points. Do you think that Ellen used her major project as a way to showcase her programming abilities? It is interesting to ponder how else she could have effectively conveyed her expertise in the interview.

  2. This situation can go both ways. Ellen has a right to the work she did, but at the same time she had made it as a task for the company she was working for at the time.

    Apollo had given her an assignment and she had pulled through. She may not have gotten the recognition she had hoped for, but that generally comes along with being a programmer. You do the work and the big man upstairs takes all the credit. That doesn’t give you the right to take the program you intended for Apollo and take it to the competitor.
    Ellen used her own knowledge to make up the program and presented it to Apollo. She was the one who spent the hard working days and nights building the program. It was her ideas and thought process that made the program what it was. Ellen has a right to her own work, notes, and products.

  3. I don’t think loving her job has anything to do with this situation. Ellen worked hard for 2 long years just to have her own boss take credit for her work. That’s unacceptable. You would think employees would have some sort of ownership right when developing a program.

  4. I don’t think loving her job has anything to do with this situation. Ellen worked hard for 2 long years just to have her own boss take credit for her work. That’s unacceptable. Shouldn’t there be some sort of empolyee ownership right to prevent this from happening?

  5. I believe that she has the right to do so if her contract did not include a non compete clause. If it did than she is in the wrong because the product belongs to her previous employer. I can’t say I blame her but she signed the contract and the company upheld its end.

  6. After reading the article and questions, I was not sure I fully grasped the information.I’m not familiar with all the laws and stipulations that come with owning rights to programs. Ellen in my opinion seemed justified in her decision. It seems almost everything made today is a product always almost similar to another.

  7. I think the program Ellen created should belong to her new employer, she came up with the system and her boss took all the credit. How can her previously employer continue to run the program without the person that created it.

  8. In my opinion, I think Ellen was justified by her decision. It could be also depends on her agreement when U-PAY was developed. If she is restricted from sharing such information, then she would not be justified. If there is no such agreement between her and Apollo Group, she should by all means be correct by using her intellectual abilities in whatever way that gives her maximum satisfaction or happiness.

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