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The Courts Government Programming The Almighty Buck News Technology

Does Your Employer Own Your Thoughts? 758

Posted by timothy
from the don't-answer-that-out-loud dept.
MJ writes "Evan Brown has finally lost his 7 year court battle over ownership of thoughts in his brain. Judge Henderson of the 219th District Court in Collin County, Texas granted DSC Communications Corporation, Inc (now Alcatel, USA) a Final Judgement granting DSC ownership of Mr. Brown's idea of a reverse compiler that Mr. Brown claims to have begun formulating twelve years before his employment at DSC and during his off-time while at DSC. Mr. Brown has received media coverage in print, televion and on the Internet: The John Marshall Journal of Computer & Information Law, Wired, Computerworld. This rings similar to previous Slashdot articles on employer/employee IP rights."
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Does Your Employer Own Your Thoughts?

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  • by bretharder (771353) <bret.harderNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:18PM (#9873421)
    According to the article @ wired he signed a contract:

    "The company said it owned Brown's idea because of a signed employment agreement requiring him to disclose any inventions he conceived of or developed while at the company."

    Sadly right/wrong doesn't matter if it's legal...
  • From the appeal ... (Score:2, Informative)

    by BillsPetMonkey (654200) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:19PM (#9873430)
    Here [unixguru.com]:

    "The effect of this ruling is that employers in Texas can claim ownership of thoughts in their employees brains. Texas courts can and will uphold these employer claims. Texas courts can order an employee that has been fired to work for the former employer without compensation for time or expenses. What ever you have accomplished prior to going to work for your employer can become property of your your current employer."

    Isn't Texas the state where you're not allowed to wear checked trousers and eating ice cream on Sunday is a capital offence? I hope so.
  • by ElForesto (763160) <[elforesto] [at] [gmail.com]> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:22PM (#9873468) Homepage
    Bad judges are the reason we end up with garbage like this going on. Make sure you do your homework when voting in judicial races, and support groups that keep an eye on judges like J.A.I.L. [jail4judges.org]
  • than citizens. I personally hope this gets appealed to SCOTUS- and then I say if they uphold corporate rights over citzenry, we take that as a sign that it's time for a new revolution.
  • Sounds Fishy (Score:2, Informative)

    by dameatrius (182345) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:25PM (#9873504)
    If he truly wasn't working on this, I could understand. But if you read the ruling. He was working on a product with a subordinate for reverse engineering an app to high level code for the company. If he truly was working on it, he should have disclosed it when he started working there and possibly filed a patent.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:27PM (#9873524)
    Jesus wept. That's Captain Ahab [litquotes.com], not Khan.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:2, Informative)

    by MisterQ (60710) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:33PM (#9873602)
    FOr the last half dozen or so companies that I have contracted to, when presented with an employee/contractor agreement, I have crossed out and initialled the clauses that I don't agree to. (Such as 24 hour rights to IP) On only one occasion has anyone got upset, and then when I explained why, they conceded.

    MisterQ
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:33PM (#9873607)
    This is the exact reason I subtly screwed up a job offer by talking about all the stuff I worked on at home. The company that made the offer presented me with a huge contract to sign, with provisions that anything I worked on AT ANY TIME while employed by them was automatically owned by them. On top of that, I would be legally prevented from taking a job with any of their clients or their competitors for two years after leaving the company, if that were to ever happen. From their explaination, they said it was to prevent people from stealing their code. I thought this was ridiculess, and began asking more about it before signing. Then I started talking about creating my own company with the project that I did in school. Surprise surprise...they took the contract away from me and said that I could sign it another day. The next day when I called back, they suddenly had no need to hire anyone else at the time, so my offer was no longer on the table. Darn...
  • by DaveJay (133437) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:52PM (#9873805)
    My wife works for a movie distributor, and a big one at that.

    When she went to work for them in a NON-production capacity, they asked her to sign a contract that stated that the rights to anything she produced while with the company would belong to the company. This, even thought it was a NON-production position.

    Trouble was, long before accepting their employment, she already had a signed deal for an independent production that was underway -- and her new company did not ask her to sign this contract until several weeks after she accepted and began employment. She immediately disclosed her existing deal, and made it clear that she would not sign the contract unless it specifically excluded this existing deal.

    It took more than two months of phone calls and letters before they acknowledged their impasse. My wife's position was, "I understand that you don't want me to walk away with any of YOUR rights, but I don't want you to walk away with any of MY rights, so I will not sign this unless it specifically excludes my existing project." The company's lawyers responded with, "Gee, we have never encountered this type of situation before, and we don't know an appropriate way to handle it, so why don't you just do what everyone else does and sign it as is?"

    Needless to say, she refused to do so. As of this writing, she remains employed, and the contract remains unsigned.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Informative)

    by TheVoice900 (467327) <(kamil) (at) (kamilkisiel.net)> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:52PM (#9873806) Homepage
    That's why you should keep a log, preferably a dated lab note book of any kind of research or work you do. If he had such a book that contained the history of his ideas and went back to before his employment at Alcatel, he would likely have been able to win this court case.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:4, Informative)

    by Kenja (541830) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @06:58PM (#9873844)
    Every place I've worked that had a "we own your thoughts" clause also had a place to list prior work that was excluded from the contract. If he realy had this idea prior to signing he should have listed it as an exception.
  • Book recommendation (Score:3, Informative)

    by raytracer (51035) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:01PM (#9873875)
    A book which was recommended to me during a skirmish over similar issues was Who owns what is in your head? [amazon.com]. It brings up many issues that a talented engineer should understand before signing an employment contract.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Informative)

    by matdavis (21180) * on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:22PM (#9874097)
    This section I read from the judgment sounds to me as if his idea was exactly what he was supposed to be working on (thanks to Google's cache, and the bold is mine):


    B. The Status of the Solution

    Brown repeatedly claims there is a fact issue that the Solution was not an invention, or even a conception falling under the terms of the employment agreement. However, he claimed in his April 1996 memo to management, I have developed a method of converting machine executable binary code into high level source code form using logic and data abstractions. . . . Brown has not presented any other credible evidence to contradict this assertion.

    Brown also claims Alcatel was not in the business of designing software, but was in the telecommunications business. Thus, the employment agreement is not applicable to the Solution. However, the evidence in the record establishes that Brown managed the group at Alcatel charged with maintaining and developing automated conversion tools for converting high-level code to low- level code. The record further shows that one of Brown's job functions was to manually convert Alcatel's existing low-level code to high-level code. The evidence shows Alcatel twice investigated automated conversion tools in 1993 and 1995. In addition, in 1993, Brown managed the employee charged with investigating the low-level to high-level automated code conversion process and received a status report on his research on October 18, 1993.

    We do not believe the court below erred in concluding Alcatel, pursuant to the employment agreement, owns full legal right, title and interest to the process and/or method that is known as the Solution. We overrule Brown's first issue in its entirety.


  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:33PM (#9874196)
    I call BS.

    "As the founder of a software company, let me assure you that a reasonable proprietary rights agreement signed by all the developers at the company is essential. Without it companies could not get investors"

    I've raised $26 million from top-tier Sandhill Road VCs, and been in various ground-floor startups that went through a total of over $150 mil. Not one of the VCs ever asked to see employment contracts for anyone below a VP level.

    Venture capital and angel investors alike care about

    the management team

    the opportunity

    the competitive advantage you bring

    I agree it's important to have solid language about intellectual property in your employment contracts; but saying it's because of investors seems to me to be simply denying responsibility and pointing the finger where it doesn't deserve to be pointed. Just admit it that it's important to management and to the company to have such agreements in place, and don't go around blaming the investors.

  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Informative)

    by roju (193642) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:53PM (#9874355)
    To join the storm of people calling bullshit, if I was an electrician in the employ of a factory, I think that they'd be hard pressed to claim ownership of the radio I built in my basement in my spare time.

    The employer should own what's done on work time, for work. End-of-story.
  • by jag164 (309858) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:11PM (#9874484)
    Isn't Texas the state where you're not allowed to wear checked trousers and eating ice cream on Sunday is a capital offence?

    Nope, Texas is the state where the past a resolution honoring the Boston Strangler. [snopes.com]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:21PM (#9874556)
    District Court Judges are elected in Texas. As such, they are beholden not by justice, but by their contributors. SURPRISE!! I'll just bet that this judge got more than his share of contributions from various members of the DSC/Alcatel cabal. As a lawyer from Texas, I know from personal experience that this happens all the time. Just ask Tom DeLay....

    As for his prospects on appeal, the Texas Supreme Court has shown a consistent trend over the past 15+ years in favor of business and against consumer/employee rights. So don't expect any reversals here in Texas. If you have any thoughts in your head, KEEP THEM TO YOURSELF!
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Informative)

    by Facekhan (445017) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:24PM (#9874579)
    A non-compete agreement has to be limited in scope and reasonable and include some kind of consideration for it to be valid. In many cases overly broad NC agreements were limited by the judge deciding the case or in some cases thrown out altogether. Depending on what state you live in Non-compete agreements may be harder to enforce. In Maryland where I live, it is pretty much impossible to enforce them since it is the position of the state that you cannot be prevented from earning a living in your chosen profession. Now client poaching from your employer is somewhat unethical but not illegal. There is also nothing wrong with leaving your job to work directly for a client of theirs since that it just using the contacts you built up at your other job which is how people find good jobs. If you work for Oracle in and later you get a job as the IT purchasing manager or Database manager with a big client of theirs, Oracle is a fool if they cry foul about it.

    For a non-compete to be valid it generally must be limited. It can't stop you from working in your field forever and anywhere. It has to specify a region of non-competition like the city the employer is in or the county. It also has to be for a limited and reasonable amount of time. And there has to be some consideration (ie money) coming to you in exchange for agreeing to this.

    Remember there is no such thing as a "standard contract" in anything and if you don't like something in a contract ask them about it. If you have a specific project you don't want them to own then make them exclude that in the contract.

    A lot of times companies barely look at their "standard contracts" and often there are some strange provisions that don't really match to the job. I got an intership and they gave me a contract that included ownership of inventions and an agreement to not hold any other job. Obviously a 3 day a week intership does not need such provisions. So I said they needed to change those things and they gave me a different contract.
  • by wkitchen (581276) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:40PM (#9874709)
    In fact, I gather than in quite a few jurisdictions, such contractual terms are likely to be unenforceable anyway.
    Probably so. I've read that in California, laws against slave labor have that effect. But unfortunately, I work in the very same county as the court that made this decision.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Informative)

    by twalk (551836) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:40PM (#9874712)
    This is totally false and won't stand up in court. Either get it notarized or at a minimum get two people that are not to closely associatied with you to read it and sign it. If you'll soon go for a patent, then first file a provisional one if you need more time (up to 1 year).
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:3, Informative)

    by AuMatar (183847) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:11PM (#9874931)
    But a judge wouldn't know when the changes were made- before theyy signed, or after in order to win the court case. For all the judge knows, you could have penciled it in 5 minutes before you entered the room. Thats why changes to contracts need to be signed and/or initialed by BOTH parties. This IS the law, I have taken contract law classes.
  • by sceptre1067 (197404) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:15PM (#9874952) Journal
    Here in MN the scenario described is not allowed by state law. In short what you do on your time and equipment is yours. This does not apply to NY or CA... A friend of mine got to cross that option out of his work contract (hired in MN, but contract written by people in CA) with out an issue.

    So... as mentioned in /. before, be aware of your local laws and act accrodingly, this is not a federal issue, yet....
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:55PM (#9875161)
    It's a nice idea, but it depends on your employer being willing to do any of that. You almost certainly wouldn't be able to form your own corporation if the services/products it offers are related to your job. Your company's lawyers would scream "conflict of interest."
  • Re:Uh... (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @10:05PM (#9875231)
    Maybe I'm missing something here, but doesn't it say he's appealing the ruling and that the appellate court said that the Judge did not meet the requirements for a final judgement and have sent the case back down to the same Judge?

    No. Here is the appellate court conclusion:

    VIII. CONCLUSION
    Having overruled all of appellant Brown's issues, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
    He lost all issues on appeal.
  • by 0x0d0a (568518) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @10:17PM (#9875312) Journal
    California prevents employers from appropriating IP produced by workers in off hours.

    Pennsylvania lacks such worker protection.

    Some employers (such as my last one) require you to list all the works that you claim rights to when you *come to work* there. Theoretically, you're giving them rights to everything else you've produced.

    It's absolutely asinine.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Informative)

    by macdaddy (38372) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @10:27PM (#9875383) Homepage Journal
    My standard response when given any sort of contract is that I'll get back with them in a week after my attorney and I have had time to review the contract further. If they ask you why simply tell them that you are an IT professional, not a legal professional and want to cover your bases. You would be surprised how often that small assertion of your rights will benefit you in the long run. Don't bother signing a contract with any company that insists you sign it then and there or tries to dissuade you from having a lawyer refer the contract before signing it. Odds are they have something to hide. Also ask for copies of all paperwork that you need to sign for the employment in advance and take it with your contract to your lawyer. Companies tend to keep contractual clauses and restrictive policies separate from employment contracts. On average having an lawyer spend a hour with me to review my contract over lunch costs me about $50 plus lunch. I wouldn't consider doing it any other way.
  • by solios (53048) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:32PM (#9875790) Homepage
    Or at least Marvel comics, back in the day- which is why Image exists now. If you worked for Marvel, they owned everything that came out of your brain. Doodle on a napkin at a bar? Theirs. Sketch on a piece of toilet paper in a Greyhound bus bathroom? Theirs. Any artistic output that you're not doing for them specifically while you're employed by them (including the pr0n you draw)? Theirs.

    McFarlane, Leifeld (ick), Lee, etceteras weren't happy about this and founded Image- a publishing label for creator-owned works, which was an instant success with the crowd that's into Marvel books.

    In context, it makes sense. From a business standpoint, Marvel's always looking for another franchise to flog into the ground and ride the shareholders into more green. From a genre standpoint, the superhero scene is so oversaturated that they need anything that smells halfway original.

    Of course, the independant comics publishers (Dark Horse, Antarctic Press, Slave Labor, others) have Known Better for years... and their books aren't recycled rehash. :)

    I dunno if Marvel's lightened up since the Image thing, but that's how it used to be. The fact that IT has similar catches written into contracts isn't much of a surprise.

    Don't get me wrong, it makes my ass hair smoulder.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Informative)

    by Christianfreak (100697) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:40PM (#9875834) Homepage Journal
    This is a common misconception. Actually the law in most states says that if you work more than 40 hours you are to receive overtime, wheither you are on salary or not. Work time is the time that you have to be at work, salary or not.

    Now your employer may ask you to work extra hours, and you may agree to that. But even if you are salary you have rights, including owning the ideas you came up with in the shower.

    The solution to this problem is to carefully read contracts you sign when you are employed, have them checked by an attorney if they aren't clear (as was mentioned above) and don't sign anything you don't really agree to. Most employers are pretty agreeable about this sort of thing, and if they aren't then you probably don't want to work for them anyway.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @12:32AM (#9876074)
    "Actually the law in most states says that if you work more than 40 hours you are to receive overtime, wheither you are on salary or not. "

    Uh, no.

    Certain classes of salaried employee, which in my experience generally includes software developers, are "EXEMPT", which means you don't get overtime.

    At best you're eligible for a small payment to cover your dinner expense when you work late.

    There's been a bit of controversy this year, in fact, over a Bush administration proposal to revise Federal law so that many more people will be classified as "exempt", and thus will no longer be eligible for overtime.

  • by pacc (163090) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @01:38AM (#9876365) Homepage
    Even though slavery is forbidden the most common form of it is through aquired or even inherited debts, and there is no better way to tax money of someone than to drag him through the US legal system - no matter how legit the case may be.

    I stumbled upon a fresh article on this subject:
    Zombie contracts in the EDA industry [eedesign.com]
  • RTFA (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @01:44AM (#9876394)
    Posters always sound off on /. without reading the article, i.e. without knowing anything about the issue except a very slanted summary. The way it's supposed to work is that moderators are more mature and mod down the uninformed rubbish. It obviously isn't working.

    Look at the article:

    In addition, in 1993, Brown managed the employee charged with investigating the low-level to high-level automated code conversion process and received a status report on his research on October 18, 1993.

    In other words, the ideas weren't all Brown's. And the ideas he did have were clearly stimulated by work done by his subordinate at Alcatel. Which he read and discussed as part of his job. The judgment looks a lot less unreasonable now, doesn't it?

  • by sbryant (93075) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @03:08AM (#9876708)

    Move here! If you take an evening class once a week, you'll be proficient after a short time. After a year, you'll be perfectly capable of handling all of your daily business in German. It's quite a logical langauge.

    Also, a lot of firms want people who speak good English, so make sure your grammar and spelling are good.

    You may need a while to get used to some of the other things here, such as the high price of fuel, and the overly high taxes. OTOH, the Germans do make some very nice cars...

    -- Steve

  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Informative)

    by surprise_audit (575743) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @04:40AM (#9877041)
    he would likely have been able to win this court case.
    Did you miss the part where he stated that the judge violated his Civil Rights several times, and also that the judge received re-election campaign funds from DSC/Alcatel?? Why would a little thing like dated lab notes have any effect when the judge feels able to ignore Constitutional Amendments??
  • ... and be prepared to negotiate.

    When changing jobs recently, I was offered an onerous IP agreement [slashdot.org]. I manage to get it amended [slashdot.org] without too much hassle - and not just for me, but (I'm told) for all future employees. Having been through this a couple of times before, it seems to me that the authors of such agreements grab everything they can by default, and will just fall over at the least sign of resistance.

    You do have to be prepared to walk away. If you're not able to decline (for financial reasons, for example) and sign the thing anyway you really have no right to complain later. At the very least you should be aware of what you're agreeing to, so at least then you can choose not to develop particularly valuable IP in your own time and with your own resources. I was amazed by the number of people working for my new employer that didn't even know what they had signed.

  • Unfair Heading (Score:3, Informative)

    by Xesdeeni (308293) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @08:26AM (#9878137)
    Did the poster actually read the ruling!? (Oh, I forgot, this is /.)

    Mr. Brown worked on manual conversion of low-level code to high-level code at Alcatel. Alcatel researched automated versions of this several times, and at least one of the researchers reported to him! Then he announced to Alcatel that he had an idea to automate the process, but he wanted it all on his own.

    Is it reasonable to expect that an employee who works at a job and comes up with a new idea based on direct experience funded by the company should be required to share the idea with the company? I think so. Sure, they should be rewarded by the company. But walking out the door with IP that they paid for is pretty unconscionable in and of itself (read the finding for my feeble attempt at irony).

    Xesdeeni
  • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @08:46AM (#9878317) Journal
    It all started with some rulings in the late 1800's.

    Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)
    The substance of this case (a tax dispute) is of little significance, but several resources linked above detail how this fateful case subsequently was cited as precedent for granting corporations constitutional rights.

    Noble v. Union River Logging Railroad Company (1893)
    A corporation first successfully claims Bill of Rights protection (5th Amendment)

    "Corporate Personhood" [reclaimdemocracy.org]

  • British Justice... (Score:2, Informative)

    by chuckT (12278) <[ku.oc.tenrellew] [ta] [selrahc]> on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @09:16AM (#9878608)
    Seems to take a different view. IANALBIWIIPAATALC (...But I Work In IP And Am Taking A Law Course): If you can prove that you were not hired to come up with the idea, and did it on your own time, then it is yours. The classic case is this one: http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/311/70 15/1248 [bmjjournals.com].

    This case looks harsh, but if you look at the judgment, he brought up what look to me like the key points - that the employment contract was unfair - too late in the appeal process. I wouldn't panic (unlikely, I know with the general level of hysteria on /. these days about IP), because it is not clear if this sets any real precedent.

  • by static0verdrive (776495) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @11:24AM (#9879996) Homepage Journal
    Coffee is very bad for you.

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." -- John Wooden

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