Who really owns the code you write?

So I'm aiming for a job in software development and recently came across some disturbing information. I've read that often software companies will require you to sign a contract stating that any and all code you write is their property. This bothered me a bit considering I love tinkering with code quite often and will usually write little bits of software or even make small games for competitions like the Ludum Dare.

I can understand them owning anything I do for work or while using company hardware/software, but what about when I come home, sit in my chair, and decide I want to participate in the next Ludum Dare or write a library that might be released as open-source?

My question is, do they still own code that I write even if it is written off the clock without use any company assets. Basically if I use my personal PC, development software that I paid for, and resources that are not in any way related to the company, can they still claim ownership if I release such projects to the public?

I feel like a lot of people seeking jobs like myself should be aware of the risks they take by signing such contracts and whether this is common practice or not.

Yes the code you wrote for them will be their's You as a programmer are selling your soul for 50+k / year.

But remember this, all you need to do is write code differently than it was written for company you work for. Ex. You have a replication script in vb written; write something to do same thing but not the same way (copy/paste style) and vuala now its your code not the one that you wrote for the company.


I'm not a programmer, but I had to sign an intellectual property agreement with my employer when I accepted the job that says anything I develop that is in any way work related belongs to them. I imagine most technical positions would have a similar policy.

Now, I don't believe they would own your code if it is unrelated to your work. Let's say your work involves developing numerical methods for modeling thermodynamics problems and you develop an alternative to MS Word over the weekend, I believe you would own that content. 

This is basically so that the company can claim any software you write that has value to them ( I.E. They think they could sell it ) 

Regardless of the contract, there is always a way to achieve that. I have second-hand experience from a relative. He worked for HP, they claimed his own project, on which he worked nightly, which he wrote for profit. It was a public transit application for the city and he waived any and all rights, despite not working during company hours and despite his IPA covering only company hours, I dont know the specifics but the gist of it is that they took him to court and won.

But remember, working for a company means that the contract you have to sign is a two-way road. If the contract doesnt suit you - it's negotiable*.  ( * in some cases)

  1. Read Your Employment Contract
  2. Don't Sign Anything You Don't Like (or don't understand)

Don't let them know if you write open-source. Don't use your real name or email address etc for the project mailing lists. Maybe even obfuscate your connection, like upload your commits from a friends house.

Your employer can't own or bother you about code the company doesn't know about.

Don't get hung up on legal technicalities, because those don't count for regular people. The law will be used by the powerful to bully the week while maintaining the appearance of justice. Because in the end a legal battle is always going to be a war of attrition.

How much money are you willing to spend for a piece paper that offers little protection in the real world?

Go forth write OpenSouce, just keep it on the down low. Let them powerful people have their illusions of control. ;)


Trying to hide it only weakens your position if an employer finds out about it later.

The code you write on your employer's hours is always owned by your employer. That doesn't even need a contract, that's just labour law.

The code you write on your own time, belongs to you. It even belongs to you if you write open source software code, except that it's licensed in an open source format.

Nothing to worry about, just avoid contracts that explicitly state that the code you write on your own time also belong to your employer for instance. Those clauses are not legal, but often the object of long battles in court that cost a lot of money.

  1. Unless you are a prodigy software engineer, your position is always going to be weak, because in capitalism, the money decides what is right/wrong.
  2. An employer fining out, is very unlikely unless you are writing some incredibly disruptive software.
  3. It is fairly common that open-source contributors remain anonymous.
  4. Allot of employers that finance an open-source dev to help out an OS-project because the company needs it, want anonymity, because it protects the company from the hassle of dealing with bogus liability claims & image damage in case the project self-destructs in a blaze of emotional drama. --->Hence you can claim that you remained hidden to protect your company.