A Client's Unlicensed Software


In our technology consulting business we have concrete guidelines concerning abiding by software license agreements. Our policy is that we do not install or support unlicensed software for any client.

However, we sometimes become aware of software our client is using without a valid license, but the software is not related to the reason why the client has retained our consulting services. We would welcome some suggestions regarding different ways to approach this issue with the client so that we do not come across as “working beyond the scope of our contract” in areas where we have not been invited.

Founder and President
A technology consulting company


The use of unlicensed software is a troubling and growing problem. Organizations that engage in such practices, whether inadvertently or not, are clearly violating moral principles of business such as the golden rule. They are also modeling dishonest behavior to employees, and are thus, creating a corporate culture that allows for shortcuts when breaking the law saves time and/or money. More attention getting, however, is the fact that these organizations are vulnerable to legal liability, especially if a disgruntled ex-employee were to turn them in.

Assuming that your consulting work does not involve modifying or building an application based upon an illegally used product, I’m not sure your ethical obligation as a consultant extends past the point of directing internal attention to the problem. As a consultant, you are to work in your client’s best interests. Helping to prevent the reinforcement of an unethical corporate culture and a potentially large legal liability would certainly qualify as working on your client’s behalf, even if spotting the unauthorized software is outside of your formal scope of duties.

I would suggest raising these issues with the assumption that such copying was done inadvertently. I would also place the conversation in the context of corporate culture and/or risk management.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

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email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
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Ethix along with our diagnosis.