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Simple question, but this has been a persistent problem. Is it the employee's responsibility to buy licenses that are needed for software used at work, or the employer's?

If the employee raises the issue that software that is necessary to complete their work, and is already in use at the company, needs a license, and the employer doesn't react, is the employee supposed to buy their own license? [Thereby, potentially, inadvertently "tipping off" software vendors that their product is being used unlicensed at the employer?] Can they recoup the cost from the employer? Or are they supposed to just ignore this issue?

I realize that the answers will differ by legislation, I'm interested in answers for different regions but particularly North America, European Union, Korea.

Clarifications:

  • Is the employer asking its workers to use unlicensed software?
    Let's say not directly, but they expect workers to do their job, and said software is necessary to do their job.
  • Is the software already in use at the company?
    Yes and has been for a while
  • Is it a free version?
    Varies, but yes, there is one that's free for personal, but not for commercial use. In another case, it used to be free for any use, but isn't anymore. In yet another case, it's decades old software, the vendor has been bought out, and the new owner set different licensing conditions and the old copy of the software no longer works, only new versions
  • "Ask the employer"
    I'm asking here because we did ask our employer and there has been no response for extended periods of time. Imagine replies like "Sure, maybe we already have a license, let me ask someone...", or "Do we need a license for that? Let me ask legal..."
  • Why are you asking this?
    I am wondering if I am personally responsible and should go ahead and buy a license for myself, or whether that might make things worse
  • Are you a contractor or an employee?
    Employee
  • Is the software to be installed on company or personal equipment?
    Both. Some workers use company-provided computers, others BYOD

Non-options:

  • "Just quit", "Refuse to work"
    First of all enjoy working here except for this issue. But also, if I quit because of this reason, isn't that automatically a labour offence on the company's part?
  • Turn a blind eye
    This is the gist of my question: if I just turn a blind eye, doesn't that make me liable for the unlicensed software use?

Finally,
If this question doesn't meet SE guidelines, could someone please tell me which ones? Just for future reference...

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    @JoeStrazzere What if the employer doesn't answer? For example the employee asks their manager, that person asks their manager, but somehow the issue gets lost in bureaucracy and there is no answer for a year?
    – P Varga
    Feb 18, 2022 at 18:50
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    Given that you are effectively saying that your employer is using unlicensed software, have named a specific set of locations and have an extensive Stack Overflow profile, you may want to think very carefully about your infosec here. Feb 18, 2022 at 18:59
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    @Job_September_2020 This is basically why I'm asking. I'm unsure if I'm personally responsible or not.
    – P Varga
    Feb 18, 2022 at 19:06
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    On whether or not the software is free, the vendor can't retrospectively change the license on something you already have. If you are using a free version, it doesn't matter if later versions are paid for.
    – Simon B
    Feb 18, 2022 at 22:33
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    @SimonB yes but only the later versions work on modern operating systems. The original copy that the company has is 30 years old.
    – P Varga
    Feb 19, 2022 at 0:19

4 Answers 4

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I'm in the EU and I can only answer for Scandinavian countries.

But here, by law the employer is obligated to provide the employee with all the tools needed to perform ones job.

This, as a software engineer, includes hardware and software for development.

There are also laws here that make sure that the employer doesn't provide you with the bare minimum. There has to be sense of ergonomics, and performant equipment, so that they don't buy you the worst of the worst.

If I was in your position I would do the following:

  • Respectfully inform the employer about the situation.
  • Inform the employer on the implications.
  • Inform the employer of which problems can arise if you are for instance being audited of you licenses.
  • Also inform the employer if there is any technical shortcomings, as in you can't do your job because you are missing feature X in the software, if the unlicensed software is missing any feature.
  • Regularly but respectfully remind them about above points (maybe every 4/6 months of the implications, emphasis that you care about the company, and care that company are not be caught in an audit which might lead to hefty fines)
  • Keep on working as normal, but maybe start looking for a different workplace

What I would NOT do

  • Buy the license from my own money
  • Tell them that this is the reason for me quitting (if I would quit)

But remember, good software developers are hard to find, so they should (if they are smart) care for their employees, because recruiting someone new might cost them a lot of time and money.

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  • Curious, could you explain why you wouldn't buy the license with your own money please?
    – P Varga
    Feb 20, 2022 at 1:29
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    Because as i wrote, there are laws here that says that the employer MUST buy them. So why should i buy something which has to be provided by them. Also, what happens if you cant afford the license? Imagen if an pilot ”has to provide their own airplane” that would be insane. Feb 20, 2022 at 2:47
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    Especially today with rented software, the licensing can be extortionate unless you're on a FAANG salary. $1000/mo isn't out of the question for someone using standard commercial packages, and if they're using SAS or something their salary could be similar to the software cost (the lowest price is ~$9000/year). I'm not donating even $5000/year to my employer (I've worked using software that cost that). Remember: a job is where they pay me, a hobby is where I pay them.
    – Móż
    Feb 20, 2022 at 4:31
  • @Toerktumlare My thought was, if the company has to provide the license, but can't manage to, then if I buy it myself, they will have to repay me anyway...
    – P Varga
    Feb 22, 2022 at 12:06
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    @ᅙᄉᅙ Making an unauthorized purchase on a company credit card makes you liable for reimbursement. Making an unauthorized purchase through your own means does not mean the company will reimburse you. Feb 22, 2022 at 20:38
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You mentioned that you already notified your manager who, in turn, also notified his manager for over a year, and you still got no answer. Then, it may be a good idea just to leave the issue at that level for them to solve.

You are not responsible for the decision that the senior manager and his above make.

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    But do you continue to work illegally? Or pay for it yourself? Because if you don’t work you will probably be fired…
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 18, 2022 at 20:14
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    I would say, continue to work illegally. If this becomes a problem it will be theirs, not yours to make. Especially since you already have a created a paper trail. This comes from a EU/Dutch perspective. It could be that the law's are different in your country. Figure out who's problem it will be if this is discovered. But I suspect it will be your employee's, not yours.
    – gorgabal
    Feb 19, 2022 at 15:00
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    The moral responsibility is on top management. If this illegal use involves being incorporated into a product, then the company can face legal trouble in some countries but that is a top management problem. If this moral issue troubles the OP, then finding a different job is a better solution.
    – David R
    Feb 19, 2022 at 15:19
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Legality

  1. Using unlicensed software is clearly illegal.
  2. What your employer is doing is clearly illegal and they are liable
  3. If you personally use non-licensed software, you are also doing something illegal. Whether you are also liable or not will depend a lot on the specific details and local laws. You will get a little protection by following employers directions, but in most legislations this may not amount to much. I think for this one you would need to consult a local labor lawyer.

Morality

  1. Your employer is essentially stealing and is asking you to steal as well.
  2. By acquiescing to their request you are stealing too.

What to do ?

  1. Create a paper trail. Make sure that you have in writing that you are being asked to use unlicensed SW. You may have to get a little creative here: you can state that a task is blocked because you need SW X to complete it but you don't have a license for it. Ask (by e-mail) on how to proceed. Keep the task blocked until you have a written reply.

  2. Start looking for a different job. Like it or not, you current employer is acting unethical and there is a good chance that they will act unethical towards you at some point too. You may as well get the pipeline rolling, which will make the next steps easier.

  3. Talk to your boss and set some boundaries. Schedule a 1:1 that they can't easily brush off. Let them know what you are willing to do and what not. Personally, I would say something like "Sorry, I'm not comfortable with using unlicensed SW. I fell this is illegal and besides the ethical issues that come with it, I'm also worried about my own legal exposure risk.

  4. Make a constructive counter offer: If possible, calculate the money required to unblock your work (don't worry about what anyone else is doing) and ask them to pony up. "It will take about xxx Dollars/Euros to fix the problem. Given what just a single lawsuit could cost the company that seems like a good investment and cheap insurance to buy"

Then take your cue from the response. If you are lucky they see reason, but it's not without risk. They may drag their feet, retaliate or even fire you. But then ask yourself: Do you really want to work for a company that fires people who refuse to steal ?

What not to do?

  1. Don't pay for the SW out of your own pocket.
  2. Don't do anything illegal.
  3. Don't compromise your own integrity or your own moral compass just because your employer asks you to.
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There are companies where the employees would be purchasing their own hardware and software, but those companies tell you up front. In fact, they'll put it in their job postings and on their web site as a benefit: "we give our employees a technology budget and let them choose their own tools".

That you've gotten responses like this:

Imagine replies like "Sure, maybe we already have a license, let me ask someone...", or "Do we need a license for that? Let me ask legal..."

tells you that they know they're supposed to be paying for it. That they haven't may be intentional but could just be incompetence. (It's unclear from your question whether anyone has ever gotten a license they needed. Is this is a new problem or was it like this before you were hired? Is this is an issue only some of you are having or is it everyone?)

What you should have done

When you asked for a license and got an answer other than some version of, "Sure, [name] will put in a purchase order and email you the license information." you should have asked:

Since I can't do this work without this software, what do you want me working on until this is resolved?

Thereby getting them to either give you something to do that doesn't violate a license agreement or at least put in an email that they're instructing you to use unlicensed software.

This isn't "refusing" to work, this is explaining that you can't work. If your employer insisted on you working in the office but the doors were locked when you got there because they hadn't paid the rent, you wouldn't be "refusing" to work when you call them up and tell them you can't get in (nor would you be considering paying the rent for them).

What you should do now

Ask your co-workers if any of them have licenses for this software.

If any of them have gotten the company to buy a license, then ask them what the process is. Document what you have to do to get the license and then make that available to everyone, including your managers.

If it's the case that folks used to be able to get the company to pay for software but can't now, then that's worth asking about. "We all talked about the licensing problems we've been having and realized none of us have been able to get a new or renewed license for over a year. What needs to happen to get this resolved?"

If it's the case that no one has ever been able to get the company to pay for software and everyone's been either paying for it themselves or using unlicensed software, then you'll have to decide whether you want to continue working for a company like this.

You can also report the use of unlicensed software to BSA | Software Alliance.

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