When Does A Company Deserve A Fresh Ethical Start?

Zynga has been taking it on the chin from the SF Weekly the last few weeks. First there was a four part series about some stickers that Zynga’s ad agency put on the streets of San Francisco – lame but not exactly Third Reicht territory. But the last two days the newspaper has focused on Zynga’s penchant for stealing game ideas from other companies. FarmVille, FishVille, PetVille, Café World, and Mafia Wars were all copies of other company’s games. That warranted a cover story.

The SFWeekly even gave this copying thing a name – Farmvillians. Which is kinda catchy, although it’s no Scamville if you ask me. Scamville was major league evil. Copying business ideas is just being part of Silicon Valley.

All this got me thinking about the quote “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” and the tendency of some people to go legit just as soon as they’ve won the game. Then they hope that they can wipe the slate clean and be accepted in the better parts of society.

I’m not talking about some real world gangster who moves into a more legitimate role as real estate tycoon and starts giving money to charity. I’m talking about the startups all around us. They all have stories. Some are worse than others, and Zynga has a particularly troubled past. Facebook may have done a better job of avoiding direct video documentation of some of its more interesting ethical moments, but they aren’t squeaky clean, either. Microsoft was famously evil for the first 25 years or so it was around. It’s just too easy to do the wrong thing in business, there are very rarely any consequences.

Should we just let the past go and wipe the slate clean once a company decides it makes more sense to be clean than dirty?

Here’s what I think. If they’ve sincerely changed, give ’em another chance. It’s worked for the Catholics all these years, and I think it works well in our world, too. Plus, the stuff the Catholic Church has forgiven itself for is way more impressive than, say, putting stickers on a sidewalk or ripping off a few tens of thousands of clueless Farmville players.

That’s the rub though. Whether or not they really are sincere about not being evil any more. I’ve got no answer for that one.