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Does Your Employer Own Your Thoughts? 758

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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  • You Know... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:14PM (#9873364)
    I'd tell you what I think, but you're gonna have to ask my employer first.
  • by Radon Knight ( 684275 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:14PM (#9873365) refusing to think at work!
    • by nEoN nOoDlE ( 27594 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:16PM (#9873400) Homepage
      I've been protesting for years
    • by Pac ( 9516 ) <> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:21PM (#9873444)
      They refused to promote me to management.
    • 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 955301 ( 209856 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:11PM (#9874483) Journal
        If you plan to work on anything related to your career outside of the company, create a corporation and work through it!! Companies don't write subcontract agreements that encroach on the sub's intellectual property, which is what you have! They write employment agreements that do.

        If you plan on doing something with your ideas, then commit! Start an S-Corp, get some liability insurance, and have your "employer" pay you by invoice instead, and sub out your own payroll. You will NEVER be asked to give up your company's intellectual property by any business you truly want to work with.

        Sure the opportunities are more slim, but hey, you're coming up with stuff on your own time, so put your money where your mouth is.

        I did this and my client started with a subcontractor agreement that explicitly stated that my IP was my IP and their IP was theirs. It was refreshing.

        Yes, Virginia, the laws are made to benefit the corporation. So Incorporate!
        • 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 Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:43PM (#9874730)
            Corporations are more important because they have more money.
          • by Grax ( 529699 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @12:57AM (#9875919) Homepage
            Personally I am in favor of the death penalty for corporations convicted of murder.

            It is possible to incorporate without a lawyer. All you need to do is fill out some paperwork and file it with the government. Whether or not you use a lawyer I would still recommend doing your homework so you know what you are getting into.

          • 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 Hoi Polloi ( 522990 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @09:46AM (#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" []

        • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @12:07AM (#9875631) Homepage Journal
          In the future, all property will be owned by corporations, as their rights, and freedom from liability, dwarf that of humans. So everyone should have at least one corporation. Preferably multinational.
      • 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 0x0d0a ( 568518 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:17PM (#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.
  • by duckandcoveranduck ( 797033 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:15PM (#9873380)
    That's what happens when you don't wear your tinfoil hat.
  • Say it isn't so (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Donoho ( 788900 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:15PM (#9873383) Homepage
    Just because it's the law doesn't mean it's fair. Why is it a company can own my ideas, but I can't own their software? How about leasing our ideas?
    • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      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
    • 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.
      • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Informative)

        by TheVoice900 ( 467327 ) <kamil&kamilkisiel,net> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:52PM (#9873806)
        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 @07:58PM (#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.
      • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Informative)

        by matdavis ( 21180 ) * on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:22PM (#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.

    • Sorry, that point of view is just wrong. 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 (they want to know what they are buying a piece of). Investors are where the paychecks come from. Nor could we deliver to our employee/shareholders an IPO or acquisition that will hopefully make them wealthy. Without clearly defining what the company owns, no acqui
      • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Insightful)

        by AndyChrist ( 161262 ) <andy_christ@ya[ ].com ['hoo' in gap]> 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?

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

        by roju ( 193642 )
        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.
        • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:3, Insightful)

          by maximilln ( 654768 )
          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

          rm -rf $EMPLOYEE_LIFE_SAVINGS;
    • Re:Say it isn't so (Score:5, Interesting)

      by stienman ( 51024 ) <[moc.scisabu] [ta] [sivada]> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @10:18PM (#9874971) Homepage Journal
      Why is it a company can own my ideas...?

      When you are a salaried employee, in most states, then you do not 'clock in' and 'clock out' of work - you may be thinking about a work problem in the shower, and the company still benefits.

      This has the implication that any work you do within the scope of your job description, possibly within the scope of the employer's products or internal services, and possibly anything you think about at all, belongs to the company.

      This is what a salaried employee is in most states.

      I've talked to some people who work as consultants on the side in addition to full time employment. Most make certian their employer is aware of their side business. One provided a CD of all the generic code and libraries they'd developed over the years, and wrote on the contract that anything developed before employment did not belong to the company. It takes some time to go through this sort of process, and some employers may balk at it, but it may be the only way to overcome this 'problem'.

  • by rd_syringe ( 793064 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:15PM (#9873391) Journal
    ...I do no thinking at work, or I'd be worried by this judgment.
  • Sadly, yes... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by dhakbar ( 783117 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:16PM (#9873396)
    Where I work (a well-known PC gaming company) employees must sign a document that basically states that any concepts and technology are developed while employed here are property of the company.

    In some ways, corporate America really treats employees like slaves.
    • by 1shooter ( 185361 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:27PM (#9873527)
      In some ways, corporate America really treats employees like slave.

      Maybe you should tell your boss how you are enslaved working there and perhaps you will be freed.
    • 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?
    • 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 peacefinder ( 469349 ) * <> 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.)
      • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by geek ( 5680 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:54PM (#9873816)
        "Sure, that may mean you don't get the job... is that really so bad?"

        It's been 3 years since I could find a decent paying job that paid the bills. So yes, it's really that bad. If it was one or two companies doing this then you could just not sign and move on, however it's now industry standard and unavoidable anywhere within this country.

        If there was some revolt where people didn't sign anymore, guess what, that's what off shoring is. I was replaced by an Indian at my last good paying job. I got stuck working at a grocery store and was again recently fired and replaced with an illegal Mexican. It's a problem.
        • Re:Sadly, yes... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by peacefinder ( 469349 ) * <> 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. ;-)
          • 35% of our industry is in that position. The rest could be in that position VERY easily. If you think you've gotten a good deal from a manager- better count your fingers, your toes, and your children- something will be missing.
      • 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:17PM (#9873407)
    Maybe it's just me, but this reporting seems so onesided. Perhaps it all boiled down to a non-compete clause that specifically forbade the guy from personally developing products similar to and based upon products sold by the company?
  • 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 bretharder ( 771353 ) <bret.harder@gmail. c o m> on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:18PM (#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...
  • 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 nine-times ( 778537 ) <> 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.
    • 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 probl
  • by rmohr02 ( 208447 ) <mohr@42.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.
    • 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.
    • 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...
  • 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.
    • 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).

    • 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.

  • 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 Unnngh! ( 731758 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:27PM (#9873531)
    First, he loses a court battle against a former employer.

    Then his site loses a battle against slashdot.

  • 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
  • unionize (Score:3, Interesting)

    by clambake ( 37702 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:31PM (#9873582) Homepage
    Well if that isn't as good reason to unionize, I'm not sure what is.
  • 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.
    • First, if every employer does this, you have to sign if you want to survive. You could live in your van down by the river, but is that really practical? No.

      Suppose one saturday your working on something on your own time, then a flash of inspiration hits, and you create some simple device that will make you million. Why legitiment reason could the employer have to expect that own it?
      If I spend company time and resourses on the matter, then sure, but not just becasue I happened to think of something.

      This Ju
  • by jfmerryman ( 670236 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:34PM (#9873610) Homepage
    When I was hired by my current employer, they asked me to sign the same sort of agreement - stating that they owned anything that I developed before employment (if not named), and anything I developed during my employment. I balked and they quickly produced an alternate employment agreement which granted me rights to anything I developed on my own time and without using company equipment.

    I suspect that this is fairly common practice. If you don't ask, they certainly won't offer (except in California, where I believe this is the law)
    • (except in California, where I believe this is the law)

      This appears to be true - being a longtime Slashdot watcher I was mindful of the dangers of "Corporations owns your thoughts" clauses, but the employment agreement for my current employer includes mention of the California labor law clause that says (to summarize) that if you develop something on your own time without using the corporations resources that they can't steal it from you, though presumably you can SELL or GIVE it to them if you want to.


      • 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

  • Google's employees (Score:5, Interesting)

    by usefool ( 798755 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:36PM (#9873637) Homepage
    Google encourages employees to use 1 day per week on their own hobby/project, does that mean...?
  • by wintermute42 ( 710554 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:38PM (#9873657) Homepage

    From a quick read of Evan Brown's web site it appears that the "unique idea" he claims is a decompiler. That is, a program that will take compiled binary code and convert it into some kind of source code. As an idea this does not seem to be terribly unique or profound. What is difficult is implementing this idea in working software.

    Evan Brown claims that the company he has been in litigation with offered him $2 million for the rights to his "idea". Apparently he turned them down. According to the web site they then sued Mr. Brown claiming to own the idea anyway.

    What I find ironic is that as an "idea" a decompiler is certainly not worth much. An actual implementation, that can be easily retargeted, might be worth $2 million, but it is not clear that this is what Mr. Brown had, or that he was capable of creating this kind of software. The guy was working as tester and debugger, not a compiler developer. His skills seem to have been hacking an existing software base, not creating new, complex software.

    While I am sympathetic with Mr. Brown's David vs. Goliath fight, it does seem that his difficulties lie in being difficult. It seems like there must have been a way out of this other than years of litigation.

    The case also seems to turn on Texas law. While I am tempted to make nasty comments about the state that elected G.W. Bush governor, I'll resist. After all he might be "elected" president and I would not want an all expense paid trip to the US resort in Cuba.

    I will note that at least in California work that you do on your own time that is not related to your employers work belongs to you. And given the history of startup companies here, it also appears that in many cases you can use related work as long as you quit first.

    Oh, and by the way, I have a compiler development background. I'd be happy to deliver a decompiler for $2 million...

    • by eric76 ( 679787 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:26PM (#9874132)
      it is not clear that this is what Mr. Brown had, or that he was capable of creating this kind of software

      Actually, Evan is one of the most capable and impressive software developers I've ever known.

      If most people had made the statements that Evan made, I would not have believed them. But considering the source, if Evan claimed he could do it, I am quite confident that he could do it.

  • 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.

  • 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 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 DaveJay ( 133437 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @07:52PM (#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.
  • Book recommendation (Score:3, Informative)

    by raytracer ( 51035 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:01PM (#9873875)
    A book which was recommended to me during a skirmish over similar issues was Who owns what is in your head? []. It brings up many issues that a talented engineer should understand before signing an employment contract.
  • by elpapacito ( 119485 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:17PM (#9874043)
    Let's make some safe assumption shall we :

    1. The majority of companies that operate in your field of work choose to apply the "I own your inventions" provision as standard in contracts.

    2. But you oppose it, on the reasonable grounds that

    a)being employed in one company doesn't imply that the company helped develop/conceive the
    idea even if the product is sold in the same market.

    b)the burden of proof of misappropriation should be on the company, there shouldn't be a burden on inventor who patented the idea, as he's potentially disclosing the idea to the world by patenting it.

    3. Therefore, you find yourself out of 80-100% of your job's market and are indirectly forced to get another job, at least until you find some better company in your field (which may never happen)

    I can't think of anything more chilling to innovation and invention then a provision that says "everything you haven't disclosed to us before is likely to be ours" ; who in his right mind would ever -think- about inventing something in his field of works, knowing that a previous employer may sue the hell out of him and win, only because of the amount of money they have and the amount you don't ?

  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:30PM (#9874170) Homepage
    Okay for one thing, I'd have to say that even if this thing goes on and a final outcome, no matter what it is, is arrived at, this idea cannot be patented. There is WAY too much prior art out there.

    I cannot point to any prior art in particular, but I have thought of that idea myself and I don't consider myself to be anything close to an exceptional thinker-of-new-ideas... it seems every time I think I thought a new thought, someone else has thought of it before me. Given that, you can bet there is prior art up the wazoo.

    So what is it Alcatel hopes to gain from this? If it's a patent, it's lame and will not last long even if it's awarded. If it's this guy's software if he ever codes it successfully, I can't see where they have any rights to it if he does... unless they have a patent on the idea... but it'll be overturned when prior art comes out and it will.

    This is a REALLY stupid case... what am I missing?
  • by DarkOx ( 621550 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @08:43PM (#9874277) Journal
    If you read the story it really does sound like they company should own the idea. I mean he was working on this stuff for them while 'on the clock' so to speak.

    I mean great so I have this idea for a really clever interface for this asset traking software I am developing for our departments use at the office. Well thats cool but I can't go code up a generic version at home and try and mass market it, The company owns the UI after all I might have had some of the more interesting ideas talking to may coworker while we were out to lunch but all the reall work was done for the corp. Its why they pay me my salary and don't hire some other person instead. I have good ideas(sometimes) and they value them. Its a resource I bring to the table the same way I bring any other skills I may have.

    One intersting rub though on all this is certain ideas carry a liability. Like say I have this really clever way to disable some sorta DRM for some corporate and leagal perpose. I then go ask my manager as I sometimes do "Hey I found a way to do cool thing X can I put it out on the net so others might find it useful" Being an OSS fan himself he will say yes. Now the next DCSS or some such is an Idea I had but don't own, hmm who is responsible for the consequenses?
  • 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?
  • 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) (at) (> 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.
  • My take. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Maul ( 83993 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:14PM (#9874501) Journal
    In my opinion:

    A company should only have claim to all, or even a portion of what would otherwise be an (ex) employee's intellectual property if it meets the following criteria.

    1. The employee used company time and/or resources to implement their idea.

    2. The idea has a reasonable relation to business the company is/was involved in at the time the person was employed.

    By reasonable here, I mean similar to the following: An employee thinks of a new way to detect viruses and works for a company that makes antivirus software.

    It does not mean: The employee thinks of something "high tech" and works for a "high tech company."

    Furthermore, the burden of proof should be placed entirely on the company if they believe an employee's work rightfully belongs to them.
  • by achurch ( 201270 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @09:15PM (#9874508) Homepage

    When I changed jobs recently, this was one of the top things on my mind. So I negotiated with the company to get the following clause into my contract (translated from Japanese):

    1. All rights to inventions, technology, software, etc. ("IP") developed by Employee as a direct result of work for Employer ("Work-Related IP") belong to Employer.
    2. All rights to IP developed by Employee not as a direct result of work for Employer ("Personal IP") belong to Employee.
    3. Rights to Work-Related IP derived from or otherwise containing Personal IP are to be decided in discussions between Employer and Employee.
    4. Employer and Employee agree to execute any documents, assignations, etc. necessary to confirm IP rights.
    5. Employer agrees to pay Employee a portion of any profits made from Employee's Work-Related IP based on Employee's amount of contribution to said profits.

    Admittedly, I had the advantage that the company I work for now called me instead of me applying for a job, which gave me a fairly good bargaining position. But at least for smaller companies, where the company isn't too strangled in rules and standard procedures, something like the above shouldn't be too hard to work out--if you try.

  • 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 White Roses ( 211207 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2004 @11:43PM (#9875486)
    It doesn't pay to think at work.
  • ... and be prepared to negotiate.

    When changing jobs recently, I was offered an onerous IP agreement []. I manage to get it amended [] 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.

  • 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.
  • As a matter of trust (Score:4, Interesting)

    by maximilln ( 654768 ) on Wednesday August 04, 2004 @10:08AM (#9878547) Homepage Journal
    Many centuries ago employee agreements were not a problem. There was a natural feedback loop in the freedom of man to live indigenously. There were abundant natural resources which could be acquired through work and devotion.

    Society has evolved long past that. There is almost no free land anywhere. There are almost no free resources. Even if there were there is no free transportation to get there from here. In today's world a person must prove their usefulness to a company in order to earn the commonly accepted form of currency which they trade for the basic necessities of life.

    At the time of the industrial revolution there was little need for an employee agreement. The common shop workers weren't paid enough to have the opportunity to strike out on their own and set up a competing business. Shop managers were typically compensated fairly enough but still had little possibility of putting together the type of funding that it would take to make use of their knowledge to create a competing business. Those who were wealthy enough to be able to make use of their knowledge were also compensated well enough to keep them from having any desire to compete. In many cases this simple business approach still applies today.

    Why, then, has there been an evolution of employee agreements. As industry has become more powerful politically it has grown less efficient. In some instances the business bloat was so great that an enterprising employee was able to use what they learned on the job, working within an oppressive and stagnant atmosphere, and set up a company built on a "better way". Enter the need for an employee agreement.

    Still, though, there are still environments where the _goal_ is to create employees who can use what they've learned and strike out on their own. These are most commonly seen in skilled trades: the path from apprentice, to journeyman, to master craftsman. The very existence of skilled trades exemplifies that an industry can function, often fruitfully, without the need for employee agreements.

    What then is the real need for an employee agreement? It is greed and preservations of social divisions. Many trolls will abuse posters with,"If you don't like it then leave and start your own business." In truth many people in society have. But what of those of us who cannot start our own business because we're not financially priveleged? For the most part we're ridiculed and dismissed. Now what of those of us who cannot start our own business because it would be a contractual violation of a former employee agreement? Certainly this hasn't stopped people from leaving a bad employer to start their own business. What the employee agreement does is ensure that anyone who does start their own business does so with the blessing of the established players in the field. It is a system of nepotism that preserves power in the hands of those who already hold it. Any real competitors would be sued out of existence by a former employer long before they could get any real business started.

    Apparently Evan Brown tried to start his own business without the blessing of his employer. The real question here is: why wasn't the employer able to retain Mr. Brown? Could they not give him a raise or enough vacation to make him happy or is it that his management was composed of such intolerable selfishness that Mr. Brown did what any sane human would do?

    Employee agreements are a company's way of taking away the last chip that we, as intellectual workers, have: the ability to pack up and leave if the system has become intolerable. Anyone who is a proponent of these agreements is A) naive, B) pampered, C) blind. If the court had sided with Mr. Brown it would have sent a clear message to corporations: treat your employees fairly.

"What the scientists have in their briefcases is terrifying." -- Nikita Khrushchev