Is it ethical to commercialize a product that was developed with the aid of the responses obtained from questions I posed to online Q&A communities?

For instance, if I asked a question to a programming community, and subsequently an answer to the question was either used outright or used as the basis for the solution, then would the resulting solution "belong" in some sense to the community?

  • 1
    There is a clear objective matter of fact that does not require philosophical expertise to appreciate: all contributions to SE are cc-wiki; use requires attribution. Maybe you could clarify your motivations here -- what sort of answer might you expect someone to provide? (I'm not sure where there is any ambiguity to decipher here: it is straightforward to conform to the terms of the license. I'm unclear on where you think philosophy and ethics come in.) – Joseph Weissman Oct 3 '11 at 22:53
  • @Joe: I'm not sure he's talking SE specifically here, but rather "in general" (i.e. any old community site). But more importantly, whether it's against the law (or some legal "license") is wholly different than whether it's morally wrong. As it stands now I think this is an acceptable question. – stoicfury Oct 3 '11 at 22:57
  • It's this reduction -- "If someone uses your tools to build their house, then do you own the house?" that really makes the question so general as to be unanswerable here. At any rate, I've tried to cleanup the question, and still have reservations but am voting to reopen at this time. – Joseph Weissman Oct 4 '11 at 0:02
  • Thanks for the clean up Joseph, I really do want to know the answer to question as it bothers me constantly. – user903 Oct 4 '11 at 0:52
  • @JosephWeissman: No. Using the text itself requires attribution. But ideas are not copyrightable. – Mechanical snail Dec 12 '12 at 9:04

First of all, let's set aside any legal implications for now, as those are questions best answered by lawyers (and will likely vary across jurisdictions, etc.) and focus purely on the ethical.

With that in mind, let us suppose that person A creates and hosts an online Q&A community. Person B writes a question. Person C answers said question. Person D reads the question and answer, and develops and commercializes a product based on C's answer.

The question being asked here is: Does D's product constitute an ethical violation against person B (the asker of the question)?

In order to answer that question, let us consider: if it is an ethical violation, what ethical norm has been violated?

It certainly isn't theft (simpliciter) or even "theft of services" (read "theft of intellectual property") as there is no generally accepted ethical principle that would grant one exclusive rights to exploit the answers that are derived from a question one posed-- unless there is a contract stating otherwise.

In other words: the only ethical violation would be a violation of a commitment (implicit of explicit) one made while taking part in the community. In practical terms, this would be spelled out in the Terms of Service, but from an ethical perspective, the more germane part would be the prima facie assumption that one recognizes that anything one publishes (and writing on a publicly visible site surely constitutes publication) would put the ideas in said publication out into the world for all to see and use unless one has taken explicit prior acts to protect said rights.

Put another way: if someone has some valuable information, and then publishes that information in a freely available form, I don't see how one could claim that the recipients of said information have any ethical imperative to refrain from making use of that information for their own enrichment.

And in this case, the situation is even more clear cut, as the question relates not to the answerer of a question, but the asker. I don't see how anyone could expect there to be an ethical imperative constraining people from making use of valuable information that one did not directly create, but only indirectly inspired through the posing of a question.

Now, as I said, all this changes if there are explicit contractual obligations specified: but these would need to be accepted by the recipients of the information prior to receiving the information-- which means that we are not speaking about general publication any more.


Being simplistic, it is known beforehand that the purpose of Q&A communities is to share Q&A. In such a way, it is accepted by who asks and who answers that their information will be widely used.

So, I would say there's no ethical violation per mutual agreement.


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