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I've been writing Technical Documentation for a few years at my current employment. I am currently resigning from my position and am curious: is it considered acceptable for me to take a copy of what I've written and signed with my name?

The documents are not IT System source code, designs or materials that can generate products. They are relatively generic documentation that most engineering companies can generate given time. There is no intention to share the documents to other parties. Other parties do not benefit from having a copy of the documents either.

I want these items as a starting reference structure to ensure categories of consideration in writing future documents of similar basis (I have horrible memory).

I am aware of legal and ethical concerns hence this question is raised. My initial research on Google points me in both directions. I have considered taking only the table of content structure to reduce this potential risk.

Update: Thank you all for your advice. The many informed avenues and considerations are what I am looking to know. Please consider this thread closed.

closed as off-topic by gnat, gazzz0x2z, Sandra K, Mister Positive, Daniel Jun 25 '18 at 17:35

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions seeking advice on company-specific regulations, agreements, or policies should be directed to your manager or HR department. Questions that address only a specific company or position are of limited use to future visitors. Questions seeking legal advice should be directed to legal professionals. For more information, click here." – gnat, gazzz0x2z, Sandra K, Mister Positive, Daniel
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • "I want these items as a starting reference structure to ensure categories of consideration in writing future documents of similar basis (I have horrible memory)." and also I am located in a small company at the moment. – John Crawfordz Jun 25 '18 at 12:24
  • Check your employment contract. Some employerse are real strict about taking anything that was produced or worked on at the company. If there is nothing in there and you are free to take it, print it out and take it home with you instead of emailing it to yourself which can be tracked. – dfundako Jun 25 '18 at 12:26
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    Have you asked for permission? – Lumberjack Jun 25 '18 at 13:46
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    Please don't downvote because the OP doesn't know what should be "obvious". That is the whole purpose of this Q&A site, to provide people with answers to their questions, obvious or not. – Masked Man Jun 25 '18 at 14:13
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    Are these documents that are shared with customers, or purely internal documents? A few comments and answers refer to "stealing", which is much harder to claim if the document is already widely distributed. – MSalters Jun 25 '18 at 15:42
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The documents are the property of the company

Legally, the technical documents you wrote for your employer would be considered their Intellectual Property since those documents were created as part of your job.

The laws on this will vary from place to place, but in the US the law is straight forward: Any intellectual property that you create while on the job belongs to your employer. Technically, keeping a copy without permission would be stealing. [Source]

You should consider talking with your supervisor about your desires. Assuming that there isn't any risk to the company, they are very likely to let you keep a copy. It wouldn't hurt to ask.

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    @Chapz that's not what the law say's and arguing in court that the law isn't sensible is not a good idea – Neuromancer Jun 25 '18 at 14:12
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    @Chapz As an employer I'd find the request a bit strange, and to your argument I'd reply "then go ahead and write whatever you want in your free time" without even thinking about it for a second. – JimmyB Jun 25 '18 at 15:15
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    @Chapz A second later, I'd probably advice "but you better don't. If you do, you may unintentionally be violating company's IP and I don't want the legal hassle that would bring." – JimmyB Jun 25 '18 at 15:16
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    @Lumberjack I think you're overestimating the chances that the supervisor says "Yes". If they say no, there is zero personal risk to them. If they say yes, and OP goes and does something they weren't supposed to, then it comes back to supervisor. – Adam S. Jun 25 '18 at 15:34
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    +1 for "just ask". – Ethan Bolker Jun 25 '18 at 15:37
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is it considered acceptable for me to take a copy of what I've written and signed with my name?

These documents belong to the company. Taking a copy without permission is effectively stealing company property.

But you can take anything for which you are given permission. So just ask.

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You must take a copy of every contract you have signed.

Should be obvious.

You must take a copy of every document where you are liable of responsability.

This should be obvious, but likely it won't. In Spain construction regulations mandate a signature from a certified architect for every building before construction starts. And the architect has legal responsabilities even if he was working for a contractor. Thus every architect here has a catalog of all designs they've ever made, with the signatures of the contractors accepting them, even if they sold the intellectual property of such designs.
Not doing so would expose them to the same problem you can face if you don't keep copies of contracts with signatures from the other parties. If they ever try to tamper with their copy you can present your original as proof of such tampering.
If you live in a nation where laws allow contractors to forbid you from having copies of documents where you are liable of responsability then I am sorry for you. Try to get a copy and store it safely encrypted even in that case if you can get away with it. But be very careful.
Unless the army or similar agencies are involved, don't mess with them, don't even try.

Don't use them for the purpose stated in the question.

You want a copy of documents in case something goes terribly wrong.
Some CEO trying to save his neck may try to tamper with documents after a catastrophe and make you look as the one who caused the problem rather than himself who was trying to cut costs and take a hefty bonus. Won't reduce the troubles for the company but it will for the CEO. A copy of the documents would be great help in that case.
But you should not ever again read those documents. They are in store just in case you need them for those worst case scenarios. They are not to be used as templates, inspiration, reference or otherwise for future works. They belong to the company which paid for it.
Unless they give you written permission to do so. Then it's fine.

  • Thats a very good point, your defense cannot rely on documents from a party that is suing you. They aren't supposed to destroy them once they are aware litigation is a possibility, but "accidents" happen, and some companies have a data retention policy (to be more precise, destruction policy) to destroy almost everything so it can't be used against them later. Rules are different for professionals such as engineers or doctors. – Harper Jun 25 '18 at 17:12
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Using such work at another company says "I'll steal from you too".

When you use that framework to develop something new at the new company, don't let them know you are customizing work you did elsewhere, unless you can show a chain-of-custody in which you got permission. Not least, managers are a lot more social than engineers. It's very likely your manager will run into your old manager and talk about your work. Bazinga!

Now that manager is going to think, "If he took that, what else did he take?" And then he'll think "and what'll he take when he leaves us?" At that point the only smart play is to give you no opportunity to do so, by having a guard and a senior tech watch you pack your box and walk you out of the building.

You do get to keep what's in your brain

Modulo noncompete agreements, of course. For instance I developed some rather sophisticated processes for analyzing domains, and a lot of code that does that. I don't need the code. And I wouldn't recreate it anyway, I would come up with new, evolved ways on new platforms that barely resemble the original.

I'm helping develop a business management plan for a nonprofit, based on my experience. (Not a situation where a noncompete would apply). I could walk into any similar nonprofit, read their historical docs, and write a similar business plan fit for them. I really don't need to copypasta the actual docs from the first.

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Since you have been doing work as a Technical Writer, you should already have worked out the terms for adding your work done for hire to your portfolio, your collection of samples of your work you will take from this job. If you have not done so, you may have waited too long.

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Make it Generic Before You Ask

I would first strip out any information specific to your company so that you truly have a generic document before asking your boss. Now instead of asking your boss "Can I take this proprietary document with me?", you ask "has my guide on writing document type X been fully de-identified for public release?". I would do this first so that you make your intentions clear: you want to retain the method of creating such documents rather than the proprietary documents themselves. The latter would be a big red flag for most companies as it can be a form of industrial espionage.

If you want to do a bit more work for a bigger payoff, I'd write a blog post on how to create this type of document, making sure 1) to make it generic, and 2) to run it by your boss for approval before posting it on the Web. This would give you professional exposure while capturing the info for yourself and for others for posterity, a win-win.

NOTE: if the original document was created under a government contract, then in the U.S. at least it has to be approved for release by the government sponsor, in which case you'll want to make sure to go through your company's official public release review process before releasing the original or any derivative documents publicly (including in a blog post). Failure to do so could result in a violation of the law (IANAL).

  • Even de-identifying the document for your purposes (and not the company's) is not your job and it is not right to use company time, facilities, equipment, printing and electricity to do this. – Harper Jun 25 '18 at 16:43
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    That could be the case at OP's company, in which case I would probably go the blog post route and simply write the post offline on my own time and then ask my boss, "I wrote a blog post on creating document type X; is there any type of review needed before I post it online? I made sure to make it generic, but I wasn't sure if there was a formal public release review process?" At many companies though there is some freedom to spend a small amount of time on things not directly related to job duties, so editing the document first could be ok. It just depends on the company. – bob Jun 25 '18 at 16:52
  • oh that's good! – Harper Jun 25 '18 at 17:05

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