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Recently it was reported IBM forced one of its employees to remove him or herself from the maintainers list of a open-source driver, with the following allegation:

"As an IBM employee, you are not allowed to use your gmail account to work in any way on VNIC. You are not allowed to use your personal email account as a "hobby". You are an IBM employee 100% of the time. Please remove yourself completely from the maintainers file. I grant you a 1 time exception on contributions to VNIC to make this change."

Are there actually any countries in the world today where a company can legitimately claim owning you 100% of the time, even unpaid time, like weekends or holidays, without running afoul of the laws?

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  • 7
    On the Hacker News discussion, an IBM employee went even further and said he had a contract where they owned what you did for several years after being employed. news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26874249 Apr 21 at 5:03
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    I want to invide you to reconsider the question you are asking (and the goal it should have)... you ask "Are there actually any countries in the world today where a company can legitimately claim owning you 100% of the time, even unpaid time, like weekends or holidays, without running afoul of the laws?" ... let's suppose that the answer to that would be "Yes, in my country it is"... then what? what would be the purpose of having that answer? how will that answer help you or future users navigate the workplace better?
    – DarkCygnus
    Apr 21 at 5:41
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    I'm confused. Elsewhere I read that the issue IBM was raising is that the user had (presumably, accidentally) used their personal GMail account, when they should have been using their @ibm.com address. Not sure if this is correct.. reddit.com/r/programming/comments/muoj21/…
    – JamesPD
    Apr 21 at 8:42
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    Welcome new user. The title does not relate to the events.
    – Fattie
    Apr 21 at 12:19
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    The quote doesn't say that IBM "owns" you 100% of the time. It says you are an "employee" 100% of the time. That is self-evidently obvious. You don't sign a new contract of employment every morning when you come to work, and hand in your resignation every night when you go home! As another example, if work in the UK requires agreeing to the Official Secrets Act for security clearance, those conditions apply for 100% of the rest of your life even if you move to another job which doesn't need the security clearance.
    – alephzero
    Apr 21 at 13:02
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I believe this question needs a frame challenge, as the question does not actually exactly match the quoted text.

Even in the most progressive countries, where an employer definitely does not "own" their employees 100% of the time, they can set limits to what employees do outside of their regular working hours.

  • A simple example is that even though you are allowed to get drunk on your own time, you can't do that shortly before you start work, as you need to be sober and rested for work. Even getting on a binge the night before isn't usually allowed, as it will affect your performance during the day. In some situations there can even be legal consequences for this (e.g. if you operate dangerous machinery or drive a bus or train).

  • More generally, the time you spend working on something else should not affect your performance. If you are half asleep the whole day because you worked through the night on a hobby or side-project, this is rarely acceptable. It is up to you to make sure you get the required rest.

  • You can't either do anything that will damage the image of your employer. If you go out and make a fool of yourself while wearing your uniform or with you company badge around your neck, this won't go well.

  • Most contracts have confidentiality and non-competition clauses. You can't work for a competitor, or publish details of what you are working on without the consent of your employer. Confidentiality clauses continue even after you stop working for your employer, and non-competition clauses can often continue as well (though this is usually limited in scope, time and space, and may require compensation).

    Contributing to an open-source project, even during your free time, may be in contradiction with non-competition clauses and/or confidentiality clauses.

As you can see, nothing in those examples means the employer "owns" the employee 100% of the time. But they can definitely prevent the employee from doing certain things which are contrary to their contractual relationship (or to the law).

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It isn’t that the company owns you 100%. It’s that by submitting to Open source in such a way can put IBM into a legal pickle.

A couple of examples (not limited to).

  • Possible protected Intellectual Property (IP) being released to the public.
  • Possible open source IP being submitted to internal projects which would change/invalidate the license agreement on the software.
  • The developer could be working on a project that competes with an existing project or IP being worked on internally, which they are unaware of.

IBM is very pro-open source. Many of the major projects out there have submissions from employed IBM developers/researchers. More details on IBM open source site.

But there are strict guidelines. You need to get permission first, and then follow rules in submitting to projects. It is most likely the person didn’t follow those rules.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 22 at 1:47
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Some jurisdictions have at-will employment which, in the absence of a contract, can give employers the ability to fire employees at will (with exceptions). So, even if a law doesn't specifically allow it, it's implicitly allowed.

In a lot of countries, employers and employees can agree to contracts that mandate specific behaviour even outside of work. An example is that some companies ban communication with competitors, and even clients. It is not uncommon for professionals to have such stipulations in their contract.

In any case, the interpretation of the quote is probably misleading.

A way to interpret it is: "Even when you are not at work, your actions can be interpreted to be representing the company".

It is completely understandable that IBM would not wish for an employee with inside knowledge of the company to work on projects where that inside knowledge could be utilised. There is a bit of a conflict of interest there.

The company wants to put up a bit of a Chinese wall between the company and its employees working on the project, and others.

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    In the U.S., employers can require, censure, and even fire employees for representing the company in ways the company does not approve of. This can be as simple as being rude to a waiter while wearing a work uniform with the company name/logo on it. While you may be on your own time, wearing the uniform implies representation of the company. There is no contract for this, it is not in any law, and there is no documentation requirement, though it is often in the "Employee Handbook". Apr 21 at 16:21
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    @SlogmeisterExtraordinaire Heck, you can be fired for being rude while not wearing the company logo, or even for being rude years before you ever even started the job - there are many high-profile instances of people being fired from their current job for things they said or wrote years earlier. Whether you choose to willfully represent your employer by wearing a logo or not, your actions can reflect upon your employer, and in many cases, they can fire you for it. Apr 21 at 17:37
  • An example of a US company doing exactly that is with one of their chief engineers within Xbox, its been many years, but the employee while representing MS on a personal Twitter told a customer that they would have to keep their Xbox 360 instead of their Xbox One (since at the time it was going to require an Internet connection) and the customer lived on a navy submarine. This MS was customer focused on that, he reached out to news outlets, so even while using a private account they were representing Microsoft and the Xbox brand. On the other hand the news coverage ended up changing Xbox One
    – Donald
    Apr 22 at 22:12
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Mostly in addition to what @jcaron writes, here in [Germany], the employer definitively does not "own" the employee 100 % of the the time.

But there are certain legal defaults (default meaning that the employment contract can deviate in favor of the employee, but not to the advantage of the employer) that assign IP rights to the employer regardless of whether the IP was created during working hours, and also regardless on whether you do that on a private computer/paper/email/whatever. So in that sense, an employee can be employee of their employer 100 % of the time.

This affects code (copyright) but also e.g. inventions. The argument behind this is that if an engineer is paid to solve some problem (i.e., to invent) and they get the breakthrough idea during sleep, the IP rights should go to the employer regardless of working hours - after all, such inventions are what the engineer is paid for. One may argue that creative processes are not switched on or off when checking out of the office.

IMHO the default rules are particularly unfavorable for code (maybe there have been more and harder legal battles fought already over inventions), and they boil down to the employer automatically holding the copyright in any code the employee writes that could potentially be of interest for them (for inventions they only have a preemptive right). And this of course includes the right to license this code open source or not.

No IMHO, this is not a particularly good default, and it creates all kinds of foreseeable trouble. E.g. it also applies to part-time employees, regardless of how few hours their contract covers, and any employee running a side business needs to be very careful in this respect.
At the same time, employees have a right to get permission for a side job under many circumstances - and the legal defaults can collide there.

You can negotiate for a contract that assigns only IP rights to the employer for work that is done during office hours, though.

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  • I also think these defaults are bad for code. Indeed, I thought claims like those quoted in the question would be highly illegal in most of the world, even if we discounted the harassing tone. It's quite depressing to learn it appears to be just the default in most of the world.
    – ksousa
    Apr 22 at 13:48
  • I had that here in the UK, where in a major research company inventions by Research&Development employs at any time were property of the company, but this didn't apply to other employees. So if your janitor makes an invention worth billions, it's owned by the janitor.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 23 at 10:35
  • @gnasher729: here in Germany, the company would have a preemptive right to the invention, regardless of whether it is done by the R&D engineer or the janitor. But the janitor would get higher compensation (payment) than the R&D engineer for the same invention since their wage and job description don't cover important inventions. The engineer would be considered (partly) paid already by their salary since they "only" fulfil their working contract when inventing. Apr 23 at 10:41
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Many third World countries and developing nations the employer basically owns the employees time and activities whenever they want. Depending on the status of the employee.

I've seen a guy get beaten unconscious by a boss and still come to work the next day.

Totally legitimate in pragmatic terms.

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    "legitimate" is probably an unfortunate word. This is de facto slavery. Not saying it does not exist, but it's debatable whether it is legitimate, to say the least. Apr 21 at 12:08
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    @CaptainEmacs which is why I said 'pragmatically legit'. But that was just an extreme, getting staff to do things on your house or clean the local church on Sunday etc,. are nothing. Could have a judge, lawyer and cop present and they wouldn't blink an eye.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 21 at 12:18
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    +1 For having the gall to portray IBM as third world country employer material xD Apr 21 at 16:12
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Following on the answer that cbeleites unhappy with SX gave, I would also add that it depends on any Employment agreements that might be in place. As noted in a couple of answers, in general any "inventions", even outside of "normal" work hours may be subject to claims by the company.

An example of a potential clause (from a U.S. based company):

Obligation to Keep Company Informed. During the period of my employment and for six (6) months after termination of my employment with the Company, I will promptly disclose to the Company fully in writing all Inventions authored, conceived or reduced to practice by me, either alone or jointly with others. In addition, I will promptly disclose in writing to the Company any patent applications filed by me or on my behalf for a period of one year after the last date of my employment with the Company. The Company hereby agrees to keep any disclosure in confidence and will not use for any purpose or disclose such information to third parties without my prior, written consent.

There are other associated clauses in many contracts regarding rights a company may haven to inventions made prior to the employment if such inventions were not disclosed.

Another "standard" type clause:

No Conflicting Agreement or Obligation. I represent that my performance of all the terms of this Agreement and as an employee of the Company does not and will not breach any agreement or obligation of any kind made prior to my employment by the Company, including agreements or obligations I may have with prior employers or entities for which I have provided services. I have not entered into, and I agree I will not enter into, any agreement or obligation either written or oral in conflict herewith.

So, by providing contributions to an open source project without specific details having been vetted by the company, an employee potentially has several issues.

  • Potential transfer of protected company information
  • Violation of not transferring "inventions" to the company

Also, from the inverse perspective of the open source project, it isn't clear that an individual can actually sign the required open source agreements because of the inherent claim the employing company might have against the "invention".

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  • The first clause seems to say that you have to tell the old employee if you make an invention (so their legal department has a chance to look at it), but the clause doesn't give them any rights to the invention. And if you made an invention in your first six months at the new company, you might have to tell the old company about it, but they wouldn't be allowed to use it.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 23 at 10:38
  • @gnasher729, if these clauses were all that existed, I would agree. However, outside of limited circumstances, the US is a "work for hire", so all work products are owned by the employer. The above clauses indicate that in addition to work done during normal business hours, "inventions" done at any time are also owned by the employer, that inventions after leaving the employer may belong to them, and any non-disclosed inventions prior to being employed by them may belong to them. All the bases and all the thoughts belong to them.
    – KevinO
    Apr 23 at 14:04

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