in Business

Ethical Dilemma I need YOUR help with

I am currently experiencing an ethical dilemma. I wanted to see if you had any advice.

Situation: Tornado provides hosting and email support for a company that has just asked us to provide FTP access to the files on our server so they can move their hosting to another company. That’s all fine, we have customers come and go all the time.

But this is where it gets tricky. This customer was a referral from a friend who built their web site and I know through him that this company never paid him for the site despite efforts to work it out. The customer has paid his hosting bills.

Should I turn the files over to the client? Should I remove the files from the server? Should my friend handle this (communication has broken down)? Why me? I need a nap.

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21 Comments

  1. How about this;

    They paid their hosting, but, they never paid for the site. So, technically, the site files belong to the guy that made them? You can’t release them without his permission to another host? Maybe?

    Maybe I am just peeing in the wind. I am no business person.

  2. I think your obligation is to your customer, in this case, the company hosting with you. They’ve not wronged you. It’s really unfortunate that your friend got screwed, but you don’t want to be in the middle of that fight.

    If your friend is really your friend, he/she will understand.

    Love your blog.

  3. I agree. Besides, if you were going to take a stand in support of your friend getting paid for building the site, that should have been done prior to agreeing to host the site and accepting money for it (assuming you knew at that time that payment to your friend was outstanding).

  4. yep. i agree ith the last two posts. was gonna say more or less the same thing. sucks about your friend, but you shouldn’t be in between that.

    hope things work out.

  5. Chris,
    I would disagree with these comments- this is not an ethical dilemna at all if you are 100% sure that the customer breached the deal and failed to pay your buddy for the workmanship. knowingly turning the goods over to them at this point is like “aiding and abetting a felon.” Sucks to get involved in the fight but the right thing to do here is to explain to the customer the situation and your position. Tell them they can suck the pages down using a website copier like HTTrack but explain why you can’t assist with what is essentially theft. If they have problems with that and bad-mouth you because of it, you will come out looking fine as long as you stand firm and respond calmly to whatever angry remarks they have. Personally, it’s the “rainy day” scenarios like this one that I think define companies – anyone can look good on a “sunny day.” good luck

    Sean

  6. I think I agree with Sean. If you are strictly business with the client and they have paid you, you should release the content. BUT, since you know the situation you are therefore obligated to atleast confront the client with your knowledge. Give your friend one last opportunity to solve things, and make a deadline to provide the client the access they requested.

    It’s not an easy situation, but definately something that can be worked through.

  7. Interesting advice here, but I would say your best ethical move would be to consult your attorney.

  8. Just be glad to get rid of them…and you can play fair but you do not have to be nice. Tell them they have 7 days and you are closing the account. If they have any unpaid bills then suspend access until they are paid. If the account is shut down already charge them a minimum fee. A very fast way is to burn a CD, Fed Ex it and buh-bye!

    The non-payment is your friend’s problem IMO, but it doesn’t stop you from asking a warm contact who your friend should get in touch with, even if he already knows.

    In any business it’s a small world and we often see these creeps again. Your friend could end up being one of those guys bosses one of these days. 🙂

    All the best,
    Tim

  9. In these cases working with friends is difficult but if your client has kept up to his end of the bargain then your hands are tied, IMO.

    I also agree with Tim – Be professional but don’t bend over backwards for somebody known to walk away after he has what he needs from you.

  10. think of it this way- forget websites for a second and imagine it were hardgoods in question. Let’s say your friend built a bicycle for this client and the client chose to store it in your garage but then decided to hose your buddy and not pay for the bike. Would you release the bike to them in that situation when they asked for it? What if it weren’t your friend who had built it but you still knew that the client was stealing from someone? It seems pretty clear to me. I don’t know how real storage locker companies handle these situations but I would imagine that if they learn that they are inadvertently housing stolen merchandise, they comply with police or the offended party in order to impound the goods until the dispute is resolved.

    Sean

  11. chris, hey sorry last post from me…. maybe talking to your lawyer is the right way to go. i just asked my father who is an attorney and he takes the other side and says your obligation is to your client who has paid you and it is not your role to police the other dispute. sucks that your friend got screwed in this situation but apparently the other people who said you give them the code are right. sorry man, seems way counter-intuitive to me but that’s the advice from someone in the legal field.

    sean

  12. My take:

    You don’t have “jurisdiction” here. You’re not the enforcer. Ethically, your obligation is to your client. If granting ftp access is something you do for clients, you need to do it. In fact, ethics aside, legally speaking you have no status to intervene here.

    However, since you are in the know about what the client did to your friend, it would be honest and possibly redemptive if you expressed your displeasure about the treatment of your friend to the departing client.

  13. My question might seem a bit silly, but why doesn’t a client hosting with you already have FTP access to their account? I ask because, if your friend was the one who arranged for the hosting and does have FTP access, then I suppose he could remove everything and then you could grant them access.

    If it were me, I’d suspend the account, give the guy his files, and wait to see what else happens. I don’t see how the hosting client can sue you without the rest of the story coming out.

    You should talk to an attorney for sure, but sometimes you just have to do the right thing regardless.

  14. Did the friend and the client have a contract? Did the contract stipulate who’s property the deliverables (i.e. the files) would be before and after payment?

    If the contract states that the files belong to your friend until payment is made they have no right to request the files in the first place, as they don’t own the files anyway. Otherwise, you’re probably better off giving them what they want as if they were any other client.

    I am not a lawyer. I do not play one on TV. This is not legal advice. Thank you, good night.

  15. i’d say that youve been made aware that the company doesnt have the rights to the files, that the copyright is held with another party and that this should be resolved and the copyright owner to issue request for access to the files, or transfer the copyright to the busines before their request can be handled…

    BTW do you charge for releasing files to another host? is there an admin fee?

  16. I say, the least you can do is inform your friend of his client’s intentions. Who knows, then he may request that you hold the files in which case you could do that because technically they belong to him since he was never paid for them. If the client complains you can say “hey, the guy who made the site wants me to hold on to the files, work it out with him”.

    Just a thought.

  17. Data belongs to the customer, not to the storage company.

    Since you are not legally affiliated with the designer of the site you have no legal right to withhold the customer’s data.

    🙂

  18. Thanks for all of the great comments. The feedback was outstanding and I really appreciate it. The comments really helped me decide this issue quickly. Much faster than if I had to think through all of the possible reasons myself.

    There are quite a few variables to this and in the end I decided that my job is not to enforce the law in this case. It isn’t my fight and the client and my friend need to handle this.

    Since I didn’t want to get in the way of any potential future positive outcome for my friend, I decided to let my friend know about the situation and that I would have to grant access to the client.

    The reason my customer doesn’t have FTP access is simply because he’s never requested it, nor does he use FTP.

    I told my friend that if he wanted to take the site files down for non-payment he could and he’d have to follow it up with action and a letter to the customer.

    The only reason he could do that and get away with it is because my customer gave him FTP access when he built the site and my customer has never requested that we change passwords or change access privileges.

    I’ve recommended to my friend that he pursue this with a collections agency if further efforts disintegrate since it’s not just a couple of bucks.

    There are several lessons to be learned.

    1. If you hire someone to design a site with the intention of never paying, don’t host your site with his friend. 😉

    2. Always have a good contract with a customer and include cancellation information and also what happens if the customer never pays and who owns files and the rights to those files at certain points in the relationship (who files belong to until paid in full).

    Thanks everyone.

  19. I was just watching an episode of Winnie the Pooh with my son entitled “Making Friends.” In this one particular segment, Tigger was housing a termite, wanting to make it his friend. The termite, however was eating Tigger’s other friends — Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit… — out of their house and homes in the 100 acre wood, and they were insisting the termite had to go before it completely destoyed their livlihood and potentially their friendships.

    I don’t really have a point with this, other than to say watching that with my son got me to thinking about you and your little “predicament”, as Tigger would say. 😉

    Glad to read that you got it worked out.

  20. Thanks Mark. I think it’s situations like this that really make life interesting. Without these situations I think we’d really be bored since they help us grow.