I am on the payroll of a small company as a full-time employee. In my spare time I developed a small computer program that will automate a regular task done by another junior employee. This will free her up to do other things. Time saved amounts to about a day each week.

What ownership rights do I have over the program, if any? Should I be clear that I own the program, and that I'm only 'leasing' it to them for free? If I don't, would I forfeit my rights to it?

For instance if I left after three months and they demand it and I refuse (or ask to be compensated), could they say sth like, 'hey, we believe this belongs to us because you did it while you were employed by us and you didn't tell us otherwise', and they would be right? Or is the onus on them to ask from the beginning?

Finally, is this sort of thing often written into employment contracts?

I am not a developer at the company and so would not be expected to do this sort of work - I did it off my own back spending my own time and money.

Thanks very much!

  • What country are you in? – Tymoteusz Paul Jun 29 '20 at 15:47
  • I am in the UK. – LS1894 Jun 29 '20 at 15:48
  • And when you say "spare time" what do you mean exactly? Have you ever done any work on it during work hours? – Tymoteusz Paul Jun 29 '20 at 15:49
  • I created the program entirely in my own time, outside of work hours. The program could be easily modified to do similar but different jobs, too, say by a different company. – LS1894 Jun 29 '20 at 15:52
  • 3
    At the moment it's a question for a lawyer or maybe Law.SE. It would be a better fit for this site, if you explain what you are trying to achieve. Do you want to reuse it for your next employer? Are you trying to sell it to other companies? Would you be disappointed if they dismiss the offer? – Chris Jun 29 '20 at 16:32

Here in the US it is common, at least in big companies, to sign an Intellectual Property Agreement that stipulates that the company owns the rights to anything and everything that an employee develops (invents) while working for said company. This hold irrespective of whether the product was developed on company time & with company resources, or entirely on the employee's time.

There is usually a process you can go through to have the company relinquish all claims to something that was clearly 1) developed on the employee's own time and 2) without company resources and 3) not related to the company's business.

For example, if your company makes computer boards, and you develop a new type of dog whistle on your own time, your company probably/may give you full ownership of the whistle.


At this point, you're into murky legal territory at best. Sorting out who owns the program at this stage is going to depend on the exact wording in your contract, whether any company resources at all were used to create the program (including company-specific knowledge) and a bunch of other things only a lawyer can really advise you on and only a court can give you a definitive answer on.

Therefore you have two choices:

  1. Play hardball with your employer and try to claim full rights to your program. You could do this, and you might end up owning your program. You are more likely to end up without a job though.
  2. Come to a reasonable agreement with your employer around ownership of the program and compensation for writing it. You may not get as much as you'd ideally like, but you'll still have your job and hopefully some additional brownie points as well.

I know which I'd do - but whichever you do, do it before showing it to anyone else at your employer. And take this as a lesson learned to get formal agreement before doing anything like this in the future.


Check your employment contract.

In my experience, employers put a clause there, sating that all product, resulting from your work is employer`s property.

Especially if you build it during work hours and using employer`s hardware.

Do not take anything for granted, you have to discuss the state of the software

If this is something you want to own and get lease / royalty payments from your employer, it have to be written and sign.

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