I often find myself with free time at work, and our e-reader (I work for a small town newspaper) is not user friendly in the least. So in my free time, and sometimes off the clock, I began developing a better web application for viewing the newspaper online.

The application is intended primarily for the betterment of the company - but I'm doing something that I don't have to do, in free time where I would otherwise be twiddling my thumbs.

I explained to my boss what I was doing and asked if, after setting up the company with a free copy of the software, I could keep distribution rights.

He said that we'd have to discuss the specifics.

So that's where my question comes in:

What rights / ownership can I expect, ethically, or logically, over this software?

  • I was hired as a designer, not a developer
  • I've only signed a standard employment contract nothing that should cover software.
  • The project is voluntary, in my free time
  • I spent 50% of the development time "on the clock" and the rest I've stayed late to work on.
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    Depends what your contract says, and what legal jurisdiction you're in. – A E Feb 4 '15 at 23:50
  • Might be interesting to know that most of the answers also apply to schools/college/universities. – Martijn Feb 5 '15 at 13:55
  • I normally would have voted to close because if it was all done at home it depends on the contract and how it would withstand a legal review in that country. But it was done at the company, on the clock, using the company equipment. – mhoran_psprep Feb 5 '15 at 15:07
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    @bharal then why is there an ethics tag? – CuriousWebDeveloper Feb 6 '15 at 1:53
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    Your free time at work is not your free time -- your free time is when you are away from work, either at home, or at a library, or in a coffee shop, or wherever. (I once worked for a company many years ago that claimed they owned my software that I developed at home on my own time -- that was clearly out of bounds and I left the company and formed my own.) – tcrosley Feb 8 '15 at 18:35

If you are on the clock, then I don't see how you can own it. In addition you are using their hardware and resources. In many companies you would get fired for using company resources for private gain or to run your outside company.

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    It doesn;t matter, if you do it on company time, it belongs to the company. If you wrote a private app that had nothing to do with the company buisiness on company time, they would own it in most legal jurisdictions. If you wrote a book on company time, they could take ownership of the copywrite. This is why you never under any circumstances do private work on company time. If you aren't busy, then study or find things to do for the company, but never try to profit from work you did on company time. – HLGEM Feb 4 '15 at 19:08
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    The concept you are not getting is that you have free time when on the clock. It is not free time, the copmpany is paying for it. – HLGEM Feb 4 '15 at 19:09
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    Even when writing an app in your own time, outside company time, some companies will claim copyright over the app. Although this would probably be specified in the employment contract, and heavily depends on the local laws. – Paul Hiemstra Feb 4 '15 at 20:54
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    Any "free time" on the clock is the company's free time. You didn't write it in your free time. You wrote it in the company's free time. – nhgrif Feb 5 '15 at 22:52
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    @CuriousWebDeveloper This answer is "wrong". It depends on the OPs contract (and local laws). It only depends on the OPs contract and local laws, actually. We don't know enough about the OPs contract - are all rights to all works assigned to the company? If not, on time or off, the OP may well own all copyright, which means the app is his/hers. Also means this whole question is out of scope... – bharal Feb 6 '15 at 1:23

If you do it in the time that you are paid for by the company, and using their equipment, then there is no doubt that your work is owned by the company. If you do these things when you are at home in your own free time (time at work where you are not busy isn't "free time"), then you need to read your employment contract and check the laws of your country.


Google especially, and other companies, often call this 20% time (google's term). It is time the company uses to encourage employees to explore new areas, learn new skills, etc. Hopefully, something useful comes out of this, but not that isn't always the case.

Additionally, whenever you are "salaried" the company is buying you, the whole you, not just you for 40 hours a week. As gnasher729 mentioned, company policy varies, but this is true of a lot of salaried creative positions.

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    "Additionally, whenever you are "salaried" the company is buying you, the whole you, not just you for 40 hours a week." Uhh, no. I can vouch for the fact that this is not at all the case in many jurisdictions and that it is the case somewhere in the world (US?) is pretty messed up. – Celos Feb 6 '15 at 9:35

I think some people on here are apt to assume that the boiler-plate on contracts fully describes reality. It does not unless there are seriously high stakes in play.

The fact is if you weren't paid or even asked to develop this thing, your company may very well NOT find it worthwhile and the question of who "owns it" becomes a waste of effort. The only thing they might care about is whether or not you were blowing their time on something they did not ask you to do.

As for you owning it, it all depends on what you do with it: how you sell/market this thing and whether or not it competes with or harms your employer and whether or not anyone at the company is actually watching or cares.


The first thing you should check is your work contract, and the second place is the law of your country.

Some companies claim ownership to only those things they directly required from you. Some are claiming right to everything you've done in your 'professional domain', including your free-time projects, technical blogs or scientific research (I've once met such requirements, but I have no idea if they were legal).

There's no single answer, only local law system can answer that.

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