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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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:14PM (#9873371)
    You can only own works that are produced. Any work that has not yet been produced is not possible to own.
  • by jmccay (70985) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:18PM (#9873417) Journal
    Ideas can be owned if they are talked about AND you sign a paper that says they own you.
  • Uh... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rinikusu (28164) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:18PM (#9873418)
    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? ???

    yes, the judge made a ruling, but judge's rulings get overturned all the time. Talk to me when it gets to the Supreme Court, mkay?
  • by MooseByte (751829) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:21PM (#9873449)

    There are plenty of employers out there with reasonable IP agreements to be had. Be sure to read the fine print, shop around for a company that's fair.

    Frankly I think it's reasonable for a company to "own" my thoughts as related to the core business of that company, and any development activities that pertain to it.

    However if my employer pays me for insurance database work and I'm writing a game in my spare time though, hell no, it's mine. And I won't sign on with any company that disagrees.

    One large company I worked for asked me to declare any and all previous projects I wanted to claim as mine before I joined them. I just made it one long list, several existing and a dozen or two "someday" projects just in case. Cheap insurance. ;-)

    Read carefully and work it to your advantage.
  • by rmohr02 (208447) <mohr.42@nOsPam.osu.edu> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:21PM (#9873450)
    Without reading his contract (and also due the the fact that IANAL) I cannot tell who is correct in this case. The company seems to claim the contract gives them ownership of Mr. Brown's thoughts, but I'm sure Mr. Brown is contesting that. Also, I do not know what is allowable in an employment contract in the state of Texas.

    In short: don't jump to Mr. Brown's defense until you know the facts.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:2, Insightful)

    by black mariah (654971) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:21PM (#9873455)
    Get them to sign a contract stating that they're leasing your ideas and you might be onto something.
  • Su Do Nym (Score:5, Insightful)

    by freeio (527954) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:24PM (#9873485) Homepage
    Because I have a corporate past, some of my works must be published under a pseudonym. The honorable history of the "nom de plume" descends from this and other crazy rulings.

    Does the record label own all the works of "Joe Skunk?" Fine, release your nest record as "Joseph Weasel" and they will never know.

    Does your employer prohibit your publications without prior review, and rejects everything you say? Fine, publish under another name.

    Does anyone remember the Ada language books by "Do While Jones?" They were published under a false name for just this sort of reason. (And, no, I am not Do While Jones.)

    Moral? Say what you please, release what you will, but misdirect them as to who was saying it. Sometimes freedom comes with a strange price.
  • by Soruk (225361) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:25PM (#9873497) Homepage
    If my employer owns my thoughts, and everything I've created since joining the company, why can't I transfer my debts to them too?!
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sploxx (622853) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:27PM (#9873528)
    I wonder if all these documents and provisions of the companies are overall economically efficient....

    For the particular company, it's a plus to extort it's employees in such a way. But now, with such a known case of lawful "mind-owning", maybe some people will be more careful about what ideas they'll give to their employer... thus hampering the free flow of ideas which mainly drives the economy.

    The same happens IMHO with quick hiring and firing of people. Noone thinks that it is wortwhile to work more than is neccessary for not getting fired. And noone gives more of his/her ideas than what is neccessary to keep the job.

    Maybe someone with knowledge of both economy and social sciences can defeat or confirm this argument?
  • by black mariah (654971) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:29PM (#9873545)
    Yeah, that fucker of a judge ruled that a legally binding contract was legally binding. What a bastard, going around upholding laws like that. Someone should fire him.

    For the slow amongst you, yes that was sarcasm.
  • by Greg@RageNet (39860) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:29PM (#9873551) Homepage
    So you have the oportunity to avoid this when you sign up for employment with a new company that 'owns your thoughts' (or doesn't want you walking away from the company with an idea you derived as part of your job duties at the company). Whenever they have that clause it's common for them to have you identify your past inventions. Anything you think you may productize or is a work in your brain you should list here. If your item is on this list and your contract is like most your employer cannot lay claim to these 'previous inventions'.

    And folks, FOLKS, don't sign anything you haven't read and don't understand. And if you don't like provisions in it, cross them out and initial it then sign it. There's nothing that says you have to accept their employment contract verbatim. Most HR folks won't bother to chase you down or make a big fuss if it's just 'fluff' wording anyway. Read your contract, sign it, and then accept the terms you have agreed to in writing.

    We don't need more 'laws' to protect the 'poor workers' from their 'corporate enslavers', folks need to just not be f**kn p*****s when they accept a job somewhere. If the terms of employment are acceptable then take it, if not ask for different terms or look for a different employer. A job aint a handout, it's an arrangement with mutual benefit to BOTH employer and employee.

    -- Greg
  • No, it doesn't. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Telastyn (206146) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:29PM (#9873554)
    No, it doesn't mean the corperation owns everything you think. It means that if you sign a contract saying so, you're bound to it. As you should be.

    If you don't like it, don't sign. Better yet, get every software engineer you know to not sign these sort of agreements. And should you ever own your own company, don't use such far reaching contracts to enslave your workers.
  • by DotNM (737979) <matt@@@mattdean...ca> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:32PM (#9873597) Homepage
    We are the borg.... your technological and biological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.
  • by davmoo (63521) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:33PM (#9873604)
    I realize I am probably going against the flow of most of Slashdot here, but I just can't get worked up and sympathetic about this.

    It all boils down to the signing of a "all your thoughts are belong to us" clause in an employment contract. Don't like the clause? Then don't sign it and take their money, and then get mad when they use it.
  • Boycott Alcatel (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Hibernator (307430) * on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:34PM (#9873611)

    I wrote email to DSC years ago complaining about their treatment of Evan Brown, and they replied that they were just enforcing his employment contract, and that they felt they were acting within the law.

    That doesn't make it right.

    Boycott Alcatel.

  • by aardvarkjoe (156801) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:34PM (#9873616)
    "Upon his hire, he was required to sign an employment agreement, pledging to provide the company with all information concerning any discoveries or inventions he made or conceived while in its employ which related to the nature of the company's business."
    Note, of course, that this isn't the same as "owning the employees thoughts," which is just the traditional Slashdot Headline Troll.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:35PM (#9873627)
    In some ways, corporate America really treats employees like slaves.

    Or do American employees let corporations treat them like slaves? Nobody forced you to sign that document and work for that company. You could have refused and looked for another employer. I've done exactly that a few times: I was presented with employment "contracts" that had abusive clauses in them, I said no thanks and went looking for better companies. In a couple of cases, I refused the contract even when I was unemployed at that time.

    The only reason companies make you sign these documents is because most engineers will sign anything (NOTE: this is not related directly to the present article). If most of us refused to sign abusive contracts, or better yet we presented the employers with a standard fair contract and said "take it or leave it," then companies would stop trying to make us slaves.

    The root of the problem is that most computer-related colleges and universities forget to teach their students about employment and contract laws, business, patents, copyrights, etc.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Otter (3800) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:35PM (#9873628) Journal
    With all /. articles, but particularly in the YRO section, it's worth reading beyond the always skewed, frequently wrong summaries.

    According to the court's ruling, the guy was hired in 1987 and signed a perfectly ordinary waiver requiring that he disclose any inventions relevant to the subject of his work. He disclosed this reverse compiler idea in 1996. In my experience, when you sign those IP waivers you have the opportunity to decalre any existing work and it's extremely worth your while to give your brain a good wracking to make sure you get anything worthwhile on that paper.

  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:4, Insightful)

    by liquidpele (663430) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:36PM (#9873634) Journal
    Well, this could be kind of a fair ruling actually. He works at a technology company, so if his work was near the scope of his home project/idea, then yes they should own the right to it.

    As for him "thinking" about it 10 years before, well he can't really prove that, so that's not even relevent.

    Guess it depends on if his idea was anything like what he was supposed to be working on at work.
  • by Veridium (752431) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:36PM (#9873640) Homepage
    Well IMO, when companies start claiming the rights to thoughts you have that aren't related to work you're doing for them, it's gone too far, regardless of what contract you signed.

    This is bad precedent. I mean, once this is allowed to stand, then "thought police" become not only conceivable, but neccesary. That's too damned far. If the law is going to push us in this direction, then the law has outgrown its usefulness to a free people.

    If Texans truly value their freedom, they have to revolt against this on some level. I'm not advocating armed revolt here either...
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DavidBrown (177261) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:37PM (#9873652) Journal
    In some ways, corporate America really treats employees like slaves.

    No. They treat them like employees. The employees are paid for this, and are therefore not slaves. The solution is to not work for these corporations. Jobs and Woz and Gates and Allen and Hewlett and Packart have one thing in common: They left the security of being employees and maintained ownership of their ideas. Consequently, they are very very rich, and the people who work for them don't own their ideas.

  • by dananderson (1880) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:39PM (#9873671) Homepage
    IANAL. I don't know about Texas, but in California an employer does NOT own your invention rights. This is true even if you signed your invention rights away in some agreement with your employer.

    There's one big exception though. If you developed any of your invention rights on company time or used company resources (even if allowed), your employer has rights if you signed one of those agreements.

  • Re:Damn lawyers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DaveJay (133437) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:39PM (#9873677)
    You know, I always took that aspect of Ayn Rand's books (esp. Atlas Shrugged) to be great in theory, but not directly applicable to the real world.

    Then I was fighting someone at work who had put us into a really awkward and inappropriate situation, not by mistake or sheer incompetence, but because he knew we'd make it work no matter what.

    When I pointed out what he'd done, and that while we COULD fix it, we SHOULDN'T, he said "You're being theoretical. You need to deal in practical reality."

    That phrase is a common one in those books, and one I always felt was over-the-top and would never be uttered in the real world. Surprise!

    This is only relevant because so many of her characters did just what the previous poster suggests -- stop thinking and working for those who would make it harder to work and think, even while profiting from the fruits of that thought and labor.

    Or, as Scott Adams said in one of his books (paraphrasing) -- what if a coworker jumped out a high window, not because he was suicidal, but because he thought it was a great shortcut to the parking lot. Do you catch him, thus affirming his decision (and thus ensuring he will repeat it), or do you let him drop and suffer the consequences of your inaction?
  • by Bull999999 (652264) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:40PM (#9873685) Journal
    This reminds me of the credit card applications. People sign them without reading the fine print and act suprised when they get raped with various fees and high interest rate.

    While I'm not condoning this type of behavior, we need to start thinking about the rights that we sign away everyday for the mighty dollar.
  • by DavidBrown (177261) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:40PM (#9873688) Journal
    The citizens had the same rights as the corporations. They just agreed to give up their rights in return for having a job. If enough IT professionals refused to do agree to this, then the industry will be forced to change their policies (or, I'm afraid to say, outsource everything to India).

  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by peacefinder (469349) * <alan...dewitt@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:42PM (#9873703) Journal
    So quit.

    No, seriously, leave. Get out. If you feel like you are being treated like a slave, get out while you can. We are citizens, not serfs, and we don't have to put up with that crap. Your dignity is worth a great deal of money. Find a way to leave.

    For the rest of you, read the pre-employment contracts that your prospective employers ask you to sign. If you don't like something in it, cross it out and initial it, then point out the struck section for the hiring manager to initial as well before you sign. If they initial it, keep a copy forever. If they refuse to initial it, refuse to sign the contract. Sure, that may mean you don't get the job... is that really so bad?

    (IANAL, of course, so my method may be insufficient. If you're really worried about it, then by all means seek proper legal advice.)
  • by StormReaver (59959) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:46PM (#9873737)
    I know I'm going to get modded down for this, but I have karma to burn.

    Mr. Brown is an adult, I presume. As an adult, he is capable of reading and comprehending the basic language that appears in employment agreements. If he is at all familiar with the I.T. field, then he is probably also aware that many employment contracts include a clause that says all ideas and products created by employees while employed at the company become the property of the employer.

    Mr. Brown willingly signed this contract, presumably because he wanted the money the company was offering in exchange for his agreement. Being a consenting adult means that he has to abide by the agreement, for better or for worse. The company presumably upheld its part of the bargain by paying Mr. Brown what was promised to him.

    As much as I sympathize with his situation, he knew what he was getting into when he signed that contract. Now he needs to be responsible for his actions.

    In addition, I really can't believe how little sense this guy has. When the company threatened to sue him, he should have just agreed to describe his idea but then described it wrong. When his employer pointed out that the idea couldn't possibly work, he could have just looked shocked like he suddenly realized how much time he wasted on a failed idea.

    Moreso, he should have just kept his mouth shut. If the entrepeneurs in the Slashdot crowd learn anything from this, understand that loose lips sink ships. If you have a great idea from which you intend to profit in the future, keep it to yourself. How many times do people have to be told this for it to sink in?

    I understand, as a developer, the desire to share strokes of brilliance with other people. As a businessman (sole proprietorship), I also understand the even greater need for discretion and personal responsibility.
  • by Crashmarik (635988) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:51PM (#9873789)
    Most development processes tend to be continuous and interwoven. You have an idea about a problem at work while your'e about to fall asleep at home. The next day you start the implementation at the office. While your'e at the office on hold you have an idea about a pet project and you do work at home. If your'e bored on a train or a plain to a customer you may go further.

    From the companies viewpoint they are gambling. Their engineers may come up with little more than microsoft style innovations, or they may come up with blockbusters. Either way the engineers are usually getting paid a decent salary with benefits while they are there.

    Its very difficult to draw the line at what a brain is doing and when. If someone comes up with product directly related to the companies business and what the employee is working on, they have a certain right to be suspicious of assertions that it was done on my own time.

    From a civil rights perspective, and a social perspective, this may be something that should not be legal or at least regulated. You can't sell your vote, you can't be forced into contracts under duress, you can't be forced to give away right via a shrinkwrap agreement (though alot of people have done a good job of convincing people they can). Should an employer have the right to force their employees give up the fruits of their creative endeavors as a condition of employment. Employment is a tangible need for most people and forcing employees to agree to such contracts may constitute a form of coercion or duress.

    There is of course the consequences to tilting this playing field either way. Tilting it to the employer can cause people to either just give away their work or not reveal it. Tilting things to the employee could cause the employer to shift hiring to a local where things are more in their favor.

    Its not a simple issue. In this case there was almost certainly a few greedy assholes in the company, but they seem to turn up everywhere.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:51PM (#9873791)
    From the judgement:
    ... 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
    Followed by the Memo he sent his bosses that got him in trouble and fired in the first place:
    I have developed a method of converting machine executable binary code into high level source code form using logic and data abstractions. The purpose of this idea is to take existing executable programs and "reverse engineer" the intelligence from the programs and "re-code" the intelligence into a portable high level language.
    Sorry, gonna have to side with the Judges on this one. He "invented" exactly what Alcatel told him and paid him to invent.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Aadain2001 (684036) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:55PM (#9873829) Journal
    Unfortunately, pride and "doing the right thing" don't put food on the table or clothes on the kids' backs. Employees need employers MUCH more than employers need employees. And the fact that everyone does this kind of contract means you will have to leave the field of technology completely to stand up for your rights. I doubt we can get enough people to give up their jobs at nice tech companies to go flip burgers and pump gas just to make a point to all the employers of the world.
  • Re:No, it doesn't. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Vancorps (746090) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:01PM (#9873871)
    You cannot patent an idea. That is the law, it is not how the law is enforced but it is not the law. No one can claim ownership of an idea until an attempt has been made to implement the idea and the properties that make it unique.

    You also cannot sign your child over to your employer. Its not just criminal law you cannot sign away.

    Ideas inherently cannot be stolen, at least not yet. When you make an attempt to implement the idea the story changes which is why so much research is done in secrecy.
  • Re:Not unexpected (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Crashmarik (635988) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:01PM (#9873872)
    Were you under 21 when you signed it ? or Under 18 ?

    Depending on the location a contract entered into by a minor wouldn't be legally binding. Even if you had attained your majority, If you had allready given them the check for your tuition the contract probably wouldn't hold up. The contract would constitute an extra condition after sale.

    If however you happened to be a grad student or work study you might as well just refer to yourself as a slave and be done with it.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:03PM (#9873892)
    It's not that simple. Many companies also have clauses that state where you are allowed to work after leaving the company. Supposedly it's to prevent someone from stealing code and taking it to another company. While this may be a valid concern, it limits the employees options. Most likely, this guy working at the game company wouldn't be able to work for any other game company for a certain amount of time, nor any company involved in graphics or a multitude of other places. He'd almost have to switch careers entirely, unless he was willing to work at some insurance company making crap wages and wearing a tie to work everyday.

    Bottom line...once you sign that contract, they own your ass...
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by peacefinder (469349) * <alan...dewitt@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:03PM (#9873895) Journal
    Obviously, sometimes it is that bad. I strongly suspected I'd get at least one reply like yours. I really do empathize with your plight.

    But not everyone is in that position. Some people are in a much stronger position to negotiate, and accept unreasonable terms of employment simply because they are careless. This hurts us all.

    This trend you note came to be when unscrupulous managers discovered that employees just signed whatever was put in front of them. Why not ask to own them? We have only two ways to stop it: legislate against it, or incite all of us to stop meekly complying with employers' unfair demands.

    I can't legislate, but I sure can try to incite disobedience. ;-)
  • by yagu (721525) <yayagu@gmai l . com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:16PM (#9874032) Journal

    I think this is much simpler than it looks. I think companies are blowing it up the employees' asses by making them sign away their rights under duress. These kinds of agreements in many cases will not hold up in court. However, it holds impressive "stick" power over any avenues an employee may pursue when the risk of losing could result in loss of stock options, or even continued employment. The field is tilted BIG TIME against the employee. Got an employee recalcitrant to sign? NEXT!

    Yes, an employee gets a salary, and benefits (hah!), but they are getting salary and benefits (hah!) ostensibly for the work they are hired to do. It strikes me as odd, no wait, make that OBSCENE , a company would lay reserve on anything you might think about while not in the office, especially for thoughts and creations unrelated to the discipline in which the employee works. I recommend strongly to all employees out there you not share or tip your hand about any ideas you have other than ones asked for.

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:17PM (#9874042) Homepage

    Actually it's not an exception in the agreement. They should have given you, along with that agreement, a copy of the relevant sections of California labor law. The law basically says that it doesn't matter what the agreement says, here's what's legally allowable and any agreement that purports to claim more than that is void to the extent it exceeds the legal boundaries. I'll have to dig out my copy of the paperwork, but IIRC the section also says the company has to give you a copy of the relevant section of the law with any agreement related to their claims to your ideas, not just make a reference to it.

  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by peacefinder (469349) * <alan...dewitt@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:21PM (#9874079) Journal
    Bottom line...once you sign that contract, they own your ass.

    I entirely agree. So don't sign the contract!!

    A contract is an enforceable agreement between two parties. A contract proposal is nothing but a piece of paper with some ink on it. There's nothing magical or mysterious about a proposed contract that should prevent you from altering it to suit you better. (Think of it as legal source code.) If you don't like what it says or don't understand it, for heaven's sake don't sign until you do!

    If you are presented with a pre-employment contract, you have nothing to lose by striking out sections you don't like and asking them to initial it. If they really don't like your proposed changes, I'm sure they'll be able to dig up a fresh copy while you re-consider the seriousness of your objections. (If they're willing to show you the door over one set of photocopies, after all the expense of interviewing you, I'm thinking it's not such a good place to work anyway.)

    Maybe you need the job so bad you're willing to bear the burdens the contract imposes. Maybe they were just trying to see what they could get, and won't object to an altered agreement. There's only one way to find out... try it.

    What have you got to lose, besides your freedom?
  • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:22PM (#9874091) Homepage
    Frankly I think it's reasonable for a company to "own" my thoughts as related to the core business of that company, and any development activities that pertain to it.

    You're right. It may sound silly and unfair at first, but think about the alternative:

    Let's say you own a software company, and you hire a software engineer to solve a particularly complex problem. You give this new hire some training, provides him with experience and resources, and then pay him to work on the problem all day. Finally, after months of working on the problem, he comes up with some terrific solution. You tell him to go ahead and implement it, at which point he turns around and claims "Oh, no. I thought of that on my off-time. In fact, the idea comes from earlier ideas I had from before I worked here (which many ideas do). So, well, if you want to use it, you need to license it from me. If you don't pay me enough, I'll sell it to your competitors."

    This situation is what this agreements and their legal enforcements are intended to prevent. That there is potential for abuse is not necessarily grounds to tear up the whole system. Besides, I've never heard of a case of one of these agreements being used successfully to seize IP clearly unrelated to what the employee was working on. I'd bet it's rare.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rainman_bc (735332) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:26PM (#9874140)
    "You could have refused and looked for another employer"

    Unfortunately that's bullshit. Take a trip back through history about how the job market worked when employers said "if you don't like it you don't have to work here". Doesn't take too much digging to see the working conditions they had to deal with.

    Thing is there's ALWAYS someone hurting enough to let themeselves be put in such a precarious position. Those are the people that the law is there to protect.

    Loan sharks, sub minimum wage jobs, etc etc. When times are tough, people will sell their soul to put food on the table.
  • by Jason Earl (1894) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:35PM (#9874216) Homepage Journal

    Whatever. I had similar wording in my employment contract. I asked to have it reworded and it was reworded. The contract that I ended up signing stated specifically that I owned everything that I developed on my own time that wasn't related to the development I did at work. I even got permission to contribute to Free Software projects that I *did* use at work.

    Caveat Emptor, let the buyer beware. If you don't read your employment contract you can't expect someone else to do it for you.

    As someone who has been both an employer (with my own business) and an employee I can tell you that this has far less to do with "corporate rights" and far more to do with employment contracts. Employment contracts specify what the employer expects in return for a wage. You can't hardly blame your employer for trying to get the best of the bargain. After all, you are trying to get the best deal you can get from your employer as well.

  • by wkitchen (581276) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:41PM (#9874267)
    You may be joking, but it's not far fetched. Because of a contract that I had to sign in order to get my current job (such are required for just about any technical job), I have put off any further development of my prior ideas, and leave all new ones dormant except for those that are actually within the function of my job, and trivial hobby stuff. Perhaps in some better future time, when either I am no longer dependent on an employer, or if someday the citizenry can gain some kind of legal protection against this kind of robbery and oppression, I'll be free to create again.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:45PM (#9874287) Homepage Journal
    Corporations have won their war against *the people*, on behalf of *some people*. Now they own your body while you're on the clock, and your mind while under contract. Only the 14th Amendment prevents them from owning your body off the clock, but drug tests carve out their niche in that protected realm, despite the 5th Amendment.

    America was a political colony of an over-extended European monarch. We kicked him, and his antiquated system, out, but less than a century later, we created his corporate successor. Within a century of that evolution, we are now back where we started, but with a new, less beatable decentralized master. Where in the world are the new revolutionaries? Farthest from the centers of corporate power, most under its control, and therefore most aware of its tyranny; the most independent of those people will reach a threshold where they escape corporatism's hold, and establish a new order. Who are they?
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AndyChrist (161262) <andy_christ@@@yahoo...com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:50PM (#9874326) Homepage
    "As the founder of a software company...Investors are where the paychecks come from."

    Is this company still in business? I mean, I thought CUSTOMERS were where the paychecks were supposed to ultimately come from...or are there still some lessons of the internet bubble that haven't sunk in?

  • by maximilln (654768) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:00PM (#9874405) Homepage Journal
    There are plenty of employers out there with reasonable IP agreements to be had

    You want fries with that?

    Frankly I think it's reasonable for a company to "own" my thoughts as related to the core business of that company, and any development activities that pertain to it

    I disagree. From the time we take on any additional schooling and decide to specialize in a field, be it computers, health care, science, arts, literature, what-have-you, we have trained our brain to be honed in on the systems and problems in that industry. It is unfair for a company which deals in one particular area to claim IP of the entire industry.

    However if my employer pays me for insurance database work and I'm writing a game in my spare time though, hell no, it's mine.

    From your second statement... programming, writing code, is related to the core business.

    And I won't sign on with any company that disagrees.

    You want fries with that?

    I just made it one long list, several existing and a dozen or two "someday" projects just in case.

    You were blessed with a company that was willing to work with you. Many HR reps will give you the,"Are you fscking kidding me? Get serious. Quit clowning around" and will ask you to condense the list or they'll have to rescind the offer.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by peacefinder (469349) * <alan...dewitt@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:00PM (#9874406) Journal
    Like I said elsewhere, there are two ways to approach this problem.

    One approach is refusing to sign abusive employment contracts, or attempting to alter them to be non-abusive. This guards one's personal rights, and has a small effect on the marketplace. If enough people do it, it will eventually have some large effect on the marketplace. (Although that effect might be offshoring, rather than the widespread use of fairer contracts. Unintended consequences, ya know.)

    Another approach is legislative. Call or visit your state and federal representatives, and ask them to introduce legislation making this sort of abuse illegal. It worked in California, apparently, so it should be possible in your state too. This is a better solution in the long run, but much harder and less certain in the short run. (There's nothing preventing one from pursuing both solutions, though.)

    Actually, there's a third way, too. Many people consider it a nasty concept they wish to have nothing to do with, though: collective bargaining. That's right... unionize. It remains to be seen if this solution can still be effective.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:06PM (#9874454)
    I just signed on with Accenture in Illinois, and the contract I had to sign specifically stated anything I make on my own time withount using company resources is mine.

    Apparently it's a state law. The lesson to be learned is don't work for IT in Texas.

    On the other hand, this guy turned down $2 million for his idea. This isn't joe shmoe getting shafted, this is somebody being greedy and his company is playing hardball.
  • by EmagGeek (574360) <gterich@@@aol...com> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:08PM (#9874469) Journal
    Use your eyeballs and your brain and RTFP (paperwork) before you accept a job. If you don't like what it says, DON'T TAKE THE JOB. It's that simple. I turned down two job offers because they had all-encompassing IP rights clauses in their policies. I finally found a great job with a great employer whose policy is "If we pay you to do it, it's ours. If it's related to the business unit that employs you, it's ours. Otherwise, we could give a flip."

    We're even allowed to use company resources (computers, labs, etc) for personal projects so long as we ask our manager beforehand and get approval. I guess there are some good things about working for a huge company that has bigger things to worry about than the little widget you're coming up with in your dreams.
  • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Insightful)

    by maximilln (654768) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:10PM (#9874480) Homepage Journal
    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

    While $SIGNATURE AND $FASCIST_EMPLOYMENT_CONTRACT;
    do
    While $RICH_EMPLOYER AND $LEGAL_COUNSEL_TO_SPARE
    do
    rm -rf $EMPLOYEE_LIFE_SAVINGS;
    done;
    done;
  • Cross it out (Score:5, Insightful)

    by baughdw (700291) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:17PM (#9874528)
    I always cross out the unfair statements in any work agreement. Stop being sheep and do what you know is right. Your employer knows it's right too.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:19PM (#9874544)
    If you plan to work on anything related to your career outside of the company, create a corporation and work through it!

    Nothing personal, your advice is great, but this drives me nuts. Why are corps so much better off then people? Kill a few dozen people, you get the death penalty. Lie about your product and kill a huge number of people, no problem keep selling tobacco.

    The whole thing seems like a shell game rich people can play that people who can't afford lawyers can get burn if they try.

    Sorry. Rant off.

  • by Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:19PM (#9874547)
    Because of a contract that I had to sign in order to get my current job (such are required for just about any technical job), I have put off any further development of my prior ideas, and leave all new ones dormant except for those that are actually within the function of my job, and trivial hobby stuff.

    You give up too much without a fight. My contract has a clause in it specifically stating that the company has no claim on anything I do that doesn't use any company time or company resources. I made them show me the full text of the contract they were going to ask me to sign on day one, not just the quick summary they sent when they offered the job, precisely to check that such a clause was there, and to request one otherwise.

    In fact, I gather than in quite a few jurisdictions, such contractual terms are likely to be unenforceable anyway. And even if not, don't sell yourself short; look at the contract before signing up for a job, question the absence of such a clause (or why there's a "we own everything" clause) by presenting something that's clearly your own work and asking whether the employer feels they have a right to it, and embarrass them into changing the contract.

    Morally they don't have a leg to stand on, and as long as you politely but firmly require them to acknowledge this before you start working for them, they won't have one legally either. No sane employer is going to go all the way through a recruitment process, pick someone they like, offer them the job, and then retract the offer in the face of a clearly reasonable request regarding the contractual terms. If a potential employer of yours does, just walk away; you now know exactly what kind of attitude they have towards their staff, and you can certainly do better elsewhere.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:35PM (#9874670)
    It's pretty sad when your vocation cannot also be used as an avocation. This contarcting impairs innovation, beause developers in your situation dare not code in their free time.

    Under this theory, General Relativity actually belongs to the German Patent Office. At least Albert was able to do something other than the mediocre duties assigned to him there - where would we be if he tried it today?

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:39PM (#9874700)
    Dated lab book and witness (they don't have to witness every entry, just have first hand knowledge that you have the lab book you keep thoughts in), makes the burden of proof fall on the company to prove you thought of the idea during their time, rather than before.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:43PM (#9874730)
    Corporations are more important because they have more money.
  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Frobnicator (565869) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:49PM (#9874769) Journal
    As so many people have commented, and so many have retorted, you don't need to sign an employment contract as written.

    I've been through 5 jobs with various corps. At the good places to work, they had no problem whatever with me striking those lines. One of them didn't let me strike the line, but let me write my own ammendment (I have an employment lawyer friend who helped me) which was trivially accepted.

    But as you pointed out, that isn't always the case. When I was offered a job at a large health company, they said basically "You sign it unmodified or you don't get the job." Fortunately, I had other offers on the table, so it wasn't a big deal to just walk away.

    From what I have personally seen, and from what I've heard from co-workers, the only reason to be working for a company that has a non-negotiable employment contract is that you are really hard up for money, or you want a company that is very old and established (meaning you have more job security).

    Just remember, your employment contract IS a contract, don't sign it if you don't agree to it. If that means your personal projects get put on hold while you work there, then so be it.

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

    by Mr. Slippery (47854) <tms@infOPENBSDamous.net minus bsd> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:08PM (#9875255) Homepage
    How'd you get the money for a computer? Nevermind that somebody is paying for your internet access. It's called capitalism

    Um, no, actually, it's called labor. Exchanging labor long predates capitalism...when Og the Homo Habilis traded six flint arrowheads he made, for two clay bowls that Ook made, there were no investors, no landlords, no capitalists involved.

    The idea that economic resources should be controled by a minority of state-backed parasitic "owners" is a later development.

  • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by karmatic (776420) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:37PM (#9875450)
    I work in the airline industry (Fleet Services) - I honestly wish I didn't have one. I believe employees should be able to use collective bargaining - I just don't want other people collectivly bargaining on my behalf, without my consent.

    And, whether I choose to join the union or not, I still have to pay dues, or I get fired.

    If my IT side jobs had a union, I would be significantly worse off.
  • by White Roses (211207) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:43PM (#9875486)
    It doesn't pay to think at work.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @12:20AM (#9875722)
    Morally they don't have a leg to stand on

    I know it's the Slashdot way of thinking and all, but I'd like to posit a counterargument.

    I am employed, like many here, as a creative professional. I'm mostly paid to fill in the details around ideas that my employer and their clients come up with, but I am also kept on staff in the hopes that I will come up with new ideas that can be of value to my employer. Any firm that creates products or IP wants creative new ideas, and the design staff is supposed to come up with them. The company then has new/better products, and hopefully the designer (me) gets some credit, and maybe his name on a patent.

    With that in mind, doesn't my company have some claim to my ideas? Naturally, if it was my idea before I was employed there, I have a good claim that it was my own. If I came up with the idea while employed, though, and it has anything to do with our industry, there's a good chance that it was inspired by my work, and that's the sort of idea I'm being paid to come up with.

    I'd say that developing an idea like this is a little like stealing clients from work. Sure, when asked to do a job for some client, you could quietly offer to do it for less on the side, but that breaks most rules of business ethics. We don't like people without ethics (Darl), remember?

    There are a lot of code monkeys, engineers, designers, and whatnot out there that can do the basic job. We try to make our mark by being better, and by creative thought. If we try to keep all our ideas as personal property, then why should the company bother with us instead of the guy who actually wants the company to succeed? Why should the company hire creative people who don't share their creations?

    The employer/employee relationship doesn't have to be hostile. The company is out to make money, but good ones know that they need good people to do that, and that compensating well will get and keep the good people. When you do your part to help the company do well, you stand a good chance at getting rewarded. It works better in a smaller company, where more people know who you are, but larger companies take care of people, too.

    But if you're only working there until you can find something better, or get your killer idea, why should they bother with you?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @12:21AM (#9875731)
    That makes no sense. You're saying that there's a generation that, well aware of the harm caused by cigarettes, chooses to smoke them anyway. At the same time, you claim that the previous generation only smoked due to a lack of knowledge of the ill effects.

    You can't have your cake and eat it too. Smokers brought it upon themselves.
  • Huh? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by digitaltraveller (167469) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @12:49AM (#9875885) Homepage
    It sounds like Evan Brown's defense argued this case poorly. If the facts I've read are correct, this isn't about property rights, it's about slavery.

    Though I haven't read it, Evan's employment contract stated something to the effect that the company owned all his ideas, and that he was required to disclose his ideas, etc.

    Well he definitely disclosed his idea. I imagine that's what started this fiasco. The question is, does the company own his idea? The question is moot, whether they own it or not. It's in his brain. Can they force him to explain it? The answer is no, unless he is their indentured servant.

    If I had gotten a stupid 21-year old to sign a contract stating that he had give me one of his kidney's if Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup, would that be enforceable in a court of law?

    Of course not. It would be considered unconscionable, even though it wouldn't kill him.

    It's exactly the same. He should have just been fired for insubordination. I hope he appeals to the Supreme Court.
  • by Positive Charge (592093) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @01:09AM (#9875983) Homepage
    This all arose because he opened his big mouth. He should have kept it to himself and none of this would have ever happened.

    Or he can do like I did with my last contract, which was conveniently delivered as a Microsoft Word document...

    I should probably shut up now.
  • by peacefinder (469349) * <alan...dewitt@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @02:19AM (#9876284) Journal
    Rather than suggest that other people should take a stand on the issue and risk their careers, perhaps you should try it first and report on the benefits of unemployment.

    Ah, grasshopper, you are hasty and have much to learn about trolling.

    Firstly, I already did. I do work for an ethical employer, indeed a company that deliberately sacrifices a substantial amount of profit so they can better serve the community. (I recently learned how much under priveliged circumstances, and it's staggering.) I could not be more proud of the owners.

    Secondly, what risk? The risk of failing to get a job with a company reserving the right to screw one over? The risk of being refused enslavement at the last moment because one stood up for one's basic human dignity? (How would that hurt one's career? It's not like all the employers will get together and make a blacklist.) Yeah, I'll take that risk next time I'm looking for a job. You damn betcha I will.

    Thirdly: "Cynicism is the most supine moral position. If nothing can be done, then you're not some kind of shit for not trying to do anything about it." -Miles Vokisigan, hittng the nail bang on the head in "Borders of Infinity" by Lois McMaster Bujold.

    Quit sniping at me, and stand up for yourself. No one else is gonna do it. Get some pride.
  • by 955301 (209856) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @02:44AM (#9876393) Journal
    I disagree. In fact, what your company does is the exact reason a company hires you to provide services to them.

    It's like this. You are a software developer. You write communication and telephone equipment software. You are hired by AT&T as a subcontractor to, what? Write telephone equipment software. You are not obligated to have them as your only client. You are also not obligated to give them everything your company creates.

    Agreed that it's a different landscape of companies and services which you work with and perform. But then my response assumed the parent poster wasn't bs'ing about wanting to do something with stuff he created on the side.

    At some point, if you have original ideas, you must create a company to sell them, if they are to go anywhere.
  • by cofaboy (718205) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @03:03AM (#9876466)
    dunno bout elsewhere but over here (UK) the tag "coffin nails" is about 80 years old
  • by varjag (415848) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @06:50AM (#9877282)
    I think by doing that Google is simply recognizes the status quo. Everywhere I worked, folks (who had a passion to their trade and usually were the most valuable employees) were spending some fraction of their worktime on their pet projects anyway.
  • by Rich0 (548339) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @06:57AM (#9877314) Homepage
    Companies could put a "we own your children" clause in their employment contracts and most people would sign them.

    Please tell me that if your employer went cube-to-cube and asked everyone to sign a more strict NDA that you would choose to terminate your employment instead. Keep in mind that virtually every potential future employer would have similar NDA requirements.

    The reason that we have labor laws is because historically contracts have always been biased in the employer's favor.
  • by werdna (39029) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @07:57AM (#9877548) Journal
    Some of my brothers here have suggested, in many cases eloquently, that the law should not permit someone to divest their inventions as part of an employment agreement, or even to propertize their inventions at all in order to protect employees from overreaching employers.

    This cuts both ways. Many of us would love to have jobs where we are hired to do nothing, but think, dream and invent. Such a law precludes the job from existing? Who would pay to have you think, dream and invent, if they weren't entitled to the benefit of that bargain?

    Some have observed that for those of us who invent, we need merely refuse to sign these agreements and refrain from taking the jobs. Others responded that this is nice, in theory, but a practical impossibility for those who want to work -- You have to sign to get the jobs. . And of course, there is always the entrepreneurial route of inventing, finding investors and trying to make it on your own. The truth, of course, is somewhere inbetween.

    But if we legislate against alienation of invention, then those of us who invent won't even have the option to refuse to sign the agreements -- the only thing we can do is to go the entrepreneurial route, and then only if we permit the inventor to assign the rights to his invention to the company (how else to raise capital?)

    So, at the end of the day, it may well be that maintaining the right to assign the invention GIVES MORE OPTIONS, at least in theory, than laws that preclude it. For those of us who prefer not to take risks and to work for invention mills, the inability to alienate deprives us from exchanging large upside of our inventions for a regular paycheck and the ability to work in fun labs with smart people. For those of us who want to be risk-takers and innovators, we are free under both regimes, unless you go all the way and deprive me of a property right to my inventions and the ability to assign it.

    In fact, markets shift. Sometime, smart people are in great demand -- as we were during the bubble. Other times, anybody with technical chops will do. We can call our shots when in demand, and not when we are not. Those of us who are not as good have fewer options. But I am not sure how employment law gives any of us any more options.

    That said, I think statutory protections assuring retention of demonstrable previous inventions not previously assigned and perhaps demonstrable previous inventions not related to the business --except for people who are hired to be pure R&D types-- and not made using company resources is not a bad idea. But taking it any further than that is very dangerous, and ultimately bad for us in my view.
  • by Idarubicin (579475) <allsquiet@hotm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @08:31AM (#9877741) Journal
    "... Oh, sounds like a cool toy, we own it of course since you used all work hardware to make it."

    And he was right--you were at your workplace, using their equipment and their lab space. And the first person you told was the company CEO. If you want to do hardware development for yourself, sink ten or twenty thousand dollars into equipping your garage.

    Yeah, the lawyers' attitude sucks, but their position isn't exactly unreasonable. For what it's worth, they probably would have let you have one for your own use.

  • by jsebrech (525647) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @08:33AM (#9877759)
    What he's saying is that cigarettes are so compelling that lots of people still smoke them despite being aware of the health risks. However, that does not excuse the cigarette companies from the lowly behavior of knowing their product killed people and not informing them about it. An informed consumer smoking is just making a choice, and uninformed consumer smoking is being assassinated.

    It's like giving someone a drink with poison in it. If you inform them of the poison, it's their choice to drink it, if you don't, and they drink it, it's murder.
  • by Analogy Man (601298) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @08:35AM (#9877768)
    I think it is a matter of insulating the business world from your soul...a corporate entity in itself has no soul/emotion/angst/id whatever. If there is money to be had the dispassionate corporation will do so regardless of right or wrong, but within the law (hopefully).

    So if you are an inventor and that gives you joy, protect your ability to invent.

    If you enjoy golf. Golf...and leave your cell phone at home.

    If you value your family, and your job demands you unduly shortchange them, find a new job or resist the temptation to be consumed by the one you are in.

    In a nutshell, look out for whatever is important to you. Your employer, boss, government certainly won't.

  • by jsebrech (525647) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @08:49AM (#9877848)
    Why are corps so much better off then people?

    Many reasons.

    The first reason is because they can't die. Even bankrupcy doesn't necessarily mean death to the corporation, and certainly doesn't mean death to its assets.

    Corporations can outwait humans. If a human has something a corporations wants, all they have to do is wait a few decades. It's like with getting themselves declared a person. The very idea is ridiculous, but by asking for it decade after decade eventually the new humans got so used to hearing the demand their entire lives that they thought it was a reasonable one to make.

    Also, corporations can more easily merge their assets. If you can do good woodwork, and a friend knows how to market woodworking products, you can't merge with that friend and become one person who knows how to market the woodwork products he made. A corporation can.

    And another reason is that corporations are not slowed down by a conscience, a soul or any kind of morality. A corporation is an amoral godless soulless psychopath, and because it does not care about anything but maximizing profit it can be radically effective at what it does. Individual humans within the corporation who obstruct the aim of maximizing profit because of morality or some other silly human reason get weeded out over time. The list of CEO's who have explained that they have to make evil decisions or they get fired is long. Shareholders are generally the only ones who could enforce morality, but corporations own most of the shares, and when you trace them back to humans the humans tend to not be involved with the running of the business much, and instead just want return on investment.

    In essence, the way corporations operate naturally makes them more powerful than humans. The task of government is to compensate for this and give preference to humans over corporations. But government has done the reverse, which is why the world is owned and operated by corporations.

    We did it to ourselves. We designed corporations so that they would rule us. Ofcourse, we can, and will, undo this. But it will require more people to become aware of the need to radically redefine what a corporation is and does.
  • by maximilln (654768) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @10:12AM (#9878579) Homepage Journal
    I have no problem with the idea that your employer owns all your work products. If you were foolish enough to write a killer game or something on company time, they own it, too bad

    At first glance I would agree but experience has taught me to think deeper. Should not the right to pack up, leave, and start your own business be retained as the last defense against an abusive employer? Isn't that what the /. trolls always come up with,"If you don't like it, leave."? How can we leave if the company owns every product of our labor?

    The decision should've gone the other way so as to tell the corporations: your employees have every right to take the product of their labor elsewhere. Treat them fairly.
  • by danzona (779560) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @10:18AM (#9878620)
    Tobacco is sold not because of the evil of corporations, but because of the evil of government.

    Tobacco is sold because people want to buy it despite being told how dangerous it is.

    I agree with you about the government being evil though.

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