Can Your Employer Take Code You Create In Your Spare Time?

from the ouch dept

John writes in with a link to a story that raises a ton of interesting legal issues. These days, plenty of geeks like to dabble in little side projects outside of work. In some areas, it’s almost expected. However, many employment agreements include language saying that any inventions made by an employee automatically are assigned to their employer. Obviously, this can get tricky very quickly. In this case, it appears (much of this is based on unnamed sources, so it might not be true at all) that Apple discovered that one of their employees, on his own time (he claims), developed a shareware application for managing your NetFlix queue. They then decided that they owned the rights to that software – even though the developer claims he developed it entirely on his own. California labor laws clearly state that things developed on your own time and on your own equipment do not get handed over to your employer. However, there’s also an exception to that rule. If the work you’ve done relates to R&D work being done at the company, they might have a claim to it. You can see how this could get messy very quickly. Both sides could make compelling arguments. Apple could claim that none of their employees will develop anything in-house any more, preferring to keep the rights to what they develop themselves (though, in doing so, they’d lose Apple’s marketing muscle). As more cases like this come to light, developers are going to start pushing back on whether or not they’ll agree to sign such employment agreements.

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Comments on “Can Your Employer Take Code You Create In Your Spare Time?”

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Chris says:

Cross it out

I usually cross out such clauses from the contracts I sign. Sometimes people in HR notice, sometimes not. When they notice, I explain and negociate, usually demanding double compensation or some such.

It’s never failed and most HR people and the like will back down since they are not used to being confronted (mostly just used to groveling)…


LittleW0lf says:

Re: Cross it out

I usually cross out such clauses from the contracts I sign.

I go one step further, I make them agree to not persue ownership of any outside work (which written in as part of the contract I signed), and then make the work I do on the outside open source.

That way, if they claim ownership of anything I did outside, they will have to pay off anyone else working on the open source project in order to gain it back…that is far more expensive than stealing it from me, so they likely wouldn’t try (not that they have, in a matter of fact, they have themselves ok’d projects at work being turned into open source projects, so it wouldn’t be likely.)

jbelkin (profile) says:

works both ways

While philosophically, I don’t disagree but legally, there are other issues – sure the Netflix thing seems pretty harmless but a) what if Apple signs a deal with Blockbuster to add that service to Sherlock? Or your employer signs a deal with a competitor? Just awkward or a major conflict?

What if you write something controversal? Maybe scholarly but a Hitler search engine? No company wants to be ‘responsible’ for contributing or being perceived as contributing computing power to such a project, right?

Or if you release it and someone claims you stole their code, wouldn’t it be more profitable to sue your employer than you?

The thing is – who decides to draw the line so the best thing is unfortunately to build a giant wall.

thecaptain says:

No Subject Given

I remember one company trying to hire (translation: screw) me when I got out of school. They wanted a person trained/schooled as a programmer/analyst but not to write software, but to work their helpdesk (they claimed to want a superior tech support person with knowledge) but then they specified in their contract that ANY software (related or not to their business) created by me outside of office hours (specifically outside of work hours) was owned by them.

They wouldn’t budge…so I told them that since they were offering me 21K a year (also a dumb figure) for 8 hours a day, then they could pay me another 21K for the other 8 hours if they were going to try and lay claim to my work.

It didn’t fly, but I wouldn’t have worked for them anyway 🙂

Its just as well, now I’ve got a great place to work and they’re actually willing to negotiate licenses for any software I develop outside of work hours that they feel they can use…

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