Dear Ethix – Issue 47

Intellectual Property

My comments on your latest issue of Ethix are not on what any articles said, but on what thoughts they provoked. The concept of “ownership” is multifaceted, and is far less black and white than it may seem at first glance. Since the concept of theft is relevant to and dependent on the concept of ownership, clarity is important. But is it possible? According to the law, the concept of theft is not that straightforward, as indicated by the variety of criminal charges relating to it: petty theft, shoplifting, larceny, grand larceny, embezzlement, patent infringement, breach of copyright, etc. Moving globally across cultures, you will find many other distinctions, e.g., where doing X in one country involves criminal theft but does not in another country, not to mention the huge differences in penalties (e.g., amputation of the hand …).

Just as there are “little white lies,” there may also be “little white thefts.” You probably wouldn’t seriously consider phoning the police to have your brother arrested for pinching your last donut.

Very often, the notion of what constitutes theft is culturally ingrained, which is tantamount to saying that it may well be more emotional than rational. The “theft” of intellectual property in a culture with strong collectivistic traditions will hardly be perceived in the same light as in a culture with strong individualistic traditions. Moreover, these perceptions change with time. Less a couple of hundred years ago — a very short time indeed in the history of mankind — even societies that considered themselves “free” (like the U.S.) allowed for the possibility of “owning” another human being!

Most societies have yet to address one of the biggest ownership issues of all: Who “owns” this planet’s finite natural resources? And how can it be, that the impoverished people in countries with great natural resources remain impoverished, while others elsewhere consume those resources at will? Do the rich and powerful of the earth become “owners” of those resources by seeing to it that such impoverished countries are ruled by those willing to allow their resources to be ruthlessly exploited? A case could clearly be made for saying that this is what has happened and is still happening.

We know for a fact that consumption of nonrenewable natural resources in developed countries far outstrips consumption (both per capita and in absolute terms) everywhere else. Perhaps if the West had put as much into building schools in Third World countries as it has into mines, the people living in those countries would be able to pay for individual software licenses and not resort to “theft” by sharing the software among everyone in the village?

A reader

More on Electronic Transactions

Thanks to your online article “Who’s to Blame for Failed Electronic Transactions,” I was able to actually talk to a person at the Magazine Service Center! I never knew before reading your article that I could press “0” during a recorded message and reach another human.

Having stupidly taken advantage of an offer to subscribe to trial subscriptions of a few magazines for $2 each, I discovered that my debit card had been automatically charged for renewals for two magazines (so far). When I finally reached a human at the MSC, he said I’d received a card to return indicating if I did not want subscription renewals. I don’t recall receiving the mentioned card. After talking in circles to this person (He was talking in circles — I simply stated that I did not want the magazines, and want my money back), he finally acknowledged my request when I told him I didn’t know how else to state my request except perhaps I could try it in Spanish!

I don’t know if I’ll ever see the money, but at least I was able to talk with a human being at the Magazine Service Center, and I owe thanks to you for this.

Mary Lyda

Editor’s note: Pressing “0” during a recorded message doesn’t always get a person. Sometimes it takes “*0#” and sometimes nothing seems to work. But it is worth a try.

Workplace Collaboration

In response to Rune Kvist Olsen’s note on new management paradigms and the response of Bakke’s approach [“Dear Ethix,” Issue 46], one might want to explore the principles and practice of collegiality. This approach differs from value theory and identifying a number of virtues that should be exercised in the workplace. Though these seem to be a wonderful solutions to the many workplace difficulties, they are problematic in their subjectivity and interpretation.

Empowerment also appears to be a solution but it is more of a management fad that has passed and really does not have the depth of principles to stand the rigor of the business workplace application.

Paul Hudec
Milwaukee, Wis.

Defeating Corporate Corruption

We have developed a new campaign to abolish corporate corruption using the Internet to leverage massive social change. It took about 100 years to abolish slavery once the Quakers decided that needed to happen — and they didn’t even have telephones, let alone the Internet! I think we can do this in just a decade. We have just launched a Web site exclusively devoted to a pledge campaign at

We are asking 25,000 business leaders to sign a pledge to

  • Run their businesses ethically.
  • Pay attention not just to finances but to the “triple bottom line” of financial, environmental, and social responsibility.
  • Inform at least 100 others about the campaign, hopefully creating a critical mass of 2,500,000 people or more who understand that ethical behavior is actually better for business.

Shel Horowitz
Hadley, Mass.