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I'm like many programmers with young careers; I maintain a few pet projects that I use in order to improve my skills in both the domain I work in, as well as the craft of software development itself.

Interestingly enough, I was having a discussion with some of my colleagues regarding one of my projects at a company event, and my boss was present as well. After a lengthy discussion, I was asked to bring it forward at the upcoming team meeting, because it could be a nice addition to the company's product line.

I'm not sure how I should feel about this. On one hand, the code isn't of much use on my personal computer, and adding it to my company's arsenal would definitely make it a better product, by exposing it to our large team of talented engineers. But on the other hand, I don't want to lose ownership of this project; I work on it on my own pace, I use it to provide me direction on research on topics I'm interested in, and I've been working on it for over a year now.

I suspect that some of the answers might come at me and warn me of the potential legal repercussions or conflict of interest issues that might arise with my employer. For the purposes of this question, please ignore this and assume everything is legal.

So my question is: Is there an opportunity there, or should I simply bring it over to the next team meeting, and continue work as normal?

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    Despite your disclaimer, I'm not sure this can be answered without going into the legal or company-specific angle and I'm afraid this might be off-topic because of it. An answer would depend on: 1) whether your boss was aware that this was a personal project, 2) what your employment contract (if you have one) or any IP transfer contracts you signed state about personal projects, 3) what your workplace culture is like (i.e. have they adopted or purchased interesting projects in the past) and, 4) what your actual goal is (selling your product, continuing as before, ...). – Lilienthal Aug 24 '15 at 12:42
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    If you reword this to something like "How do I explain to my manager that I don't want the company to adopt my personal project" it would be more on-topic, otherwise your question may be too specific to your particular situation to be useful for this site's format. – Lilienthal Aug 24 '15 at 12:45
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    @concerned_user: You discussed it at a company event. That's already potentially crossing the line. I don't know the nature of the discussion, but if you've discussed it at company events then it shouldn't be too difficult for the company to demonstrate ownership. – Joel Etherton Aug 24 '15 at 13:11
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    @JoelEtherton: That strikes me as ridiculously overbroad, and entirely untrue. I've had discussions about going to the gym at work, does my employer now own my gym membership? Talking about something and having a meeting about it are two different things, and it sounds like the former (employer doesn't own) is the case here as opposed to the latter (employer does own) – R_Kapp Aug 24 '15 at 13:45
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If you have one: Check your contract! Without going into details (I am not a lawyer, not do I play one on TV), your contract may specify that all work you undertake while employed with the company belongs to them. Regardless of that, you should speak to a lawyer if you intend to give or sell the software to them. In terms of the above, a potential purchase, or even your liability as the original developer

  • Keep in mind that (assuming your contract hasn't already given them the rights to this), that you're effectively selling them a piece of software. – Allen Gould Sep 1 '15 at 21:24
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Open sourcing the project is one option. Open source it on some site like bitbucket with one of the standard licenses, then present that at the team meeting. The team will be allowed to take the code and fully run with it, but you still maintain credit on creating the open sourced variant and the company will not be able to seize control of the project (though they will likely close source any changes they make, assuming the license you choose allows such).

But as others have said, there is an underlying legal question based on your contract. Especially if it was one of those 'everything you have ever done that you don't tell us about now belongs to us' contracts that I've seen. It really shouldn't be a legal question and it is a sad state of affairs that one even has to worry about such.

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You need to decide if "giving" your project to the company will bring you enough "goodwill" points to be worth losing control of it. Because unless you negotiate upfront with a specific contract (even if it is a verbal one) you will find that the company owns your project once it gains access to it.

Without getting into the legal, there is really only one way that I can think of that you can allow your company to have access to your software but not allow them to "claim" it, and that is to publish it yourself. That prevents them from claiming it; once it's published it becomes freeware.

If you have any plans to make money off the software, just leave it at home. Don't take it to work unless you are prepared to negotiate upfront for what the company is willing to pay you.

But if you are okay with sharing, you just want to maintain your rights to use and develop your code, you might think about publishing it on a website or two.

One other point to think about, if you are concerned with "losing control", as in, being forced to develop this project on someone else's schedule rather than your own, that is a very legitimate concern. They company will want to move at their own pace and the project will probably go in directions that you did not anticipate. At this point you will need to either embrace the company's vision and schedule, or split off and treat your own project as separate from the company's. If you split off be sure you have safeguarded your rights as the owner of the original code.

  • There are so many inaccuracies in this post. The company getting hold of your software does not automatically give them ownership of it. Not even slightly. The work remains yours until you relinquish ownership. Nor does publishing your work make it freeware... If anything, publishing software proves your ownership as you have evidence that it is your software before the company even sees it! Please, disregard this answer - it has almost no accuracy with regard to the copyright and ownership of your Intellectual Property and code... – Jon Story Aug 24 '15 at 19:13
  • For pretty much every job that I have had the employment agreement included some kind of clause about "anything you work on belongs to the company". Now, for the most part this isn't particularly enforceable, especially if the work in question has nothing to do with your profession, but once the company starts taking an interest in it and decides to commit resources to it, it is not difficult to figure out that they will want @concerned_user to be involved and at that point, once (s)he starts doing work for the company on the project, that clause suddenly becomes a lot more enforceable. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 31 '15 at 17:44
  • Once software is classified as freeware, a company cannot prevent you from using it by claiming that they own it. They can "improve" on it and sell it, but they cannot prevent you from using it based on code that is available on the web. If the freeware publishing predates the company involvement, then @concerned_user's argument could be that they got it from the internet and therefore thay cannot "own" it, they can only use it. As can (s)he. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 31 '15 at 17:44
  • With hardware and a lot of the hard sciences, you don't have to invent, or even be the first to discover something, in order to patent it. It's first come, first serve to the patent office. There's a lot of opposition to software patents (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_patents_and_free_software) so it might not be quite as dangerous, but I still maintain that once a company starts making money off software the likelihood that the original owner can "take it back" is slim to none unless there is a specific contract in place. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Aug 31 '15 at 17:46
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I'm assuming that your "pet project" is your own project, created by yourself, with your own resources, in your own time. And I'm assuming (you will have to judge whether that assumption is correct) that you are working for a decent company that isn't going to rob you.

If these assumptions are right, then you can agree with your boss that you will demonstrate the software to the company, and prepare the demonstration on company time. If they like the software, you can then come to an agreement how to license the software to the company. Or you may not, if the company isn't interested enough, or you don't like the idea, or you can't agree on the terms.

You can keep control of your "Pet project" by selling the company an unrestricted, nonexclusive license. That means you keep the full rights on your software, but they can also fully use the software. If that happens, and you work on it, don't touch the copy of the software at home as long as you work there unless you have an agreement that makes this Ok. (You may want to consult a lawyer checking any contracts).

In the end, depending on what you negotiate, you may gain money, reputation, job security, and the possibility to work on something you created yourself, while the company gets the possibility to exploit your work. All depends on whether you agree on terms.

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I know you are saying ignore the legal side but you cannot.

If this was just discussed at a high level at a company event and you used no company resources to develop the product then it is probably still your product. If this was a paid event and you discussed design then the company may have a claim already.

You would need to discuss this with a lawyer but if you present it at a team meeting then you have most likely crossed the line and it will be company property.

Be aware that once you even present the product at a team meeting the line has been crossed. If you have any intention of retaining any level of ownership then that conversation needs to happen up front.

If you are willing to give up ownership then you are the best person to decide if it will help you career wise and / or what you learn from a collaborative development is more rewarding than personal development on your own product.

  • Displaying it shouldn't "cross the line". I believe generally contracts state that any personal projects created in the workplace become proprietary of the company in question, however, showcasing the product should not. That being said I would definitely hesitate and consult either the company's legal department or a private law office to find out if you can get it in writing. – zfrisch Aug 24 '15 at 22:12
  • @zfrisch Let's defer any legal advice to attorney hired by OP and not do anything stupid in the mean time. – paparazzo Aug 24 '15 at 22:19
  • well, right lol, I was agreeing with you. I was just explaining that I don't believe it works quite the way you described. Legal counsel is definitely the way to go here. – zfrisch Aug 24 '15 at 22:22
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Just ignore the suggestion that you "bring it forward" at the meeting. What does that even mean anyway?

A "team meeting" is not the right venue for a business deal, and my guess is that your boss is not authorized to negotiate technology purchases for the company anyway. Generally, only the officers of a company can negotiate or make contracts for acquiring "new products".

Working on outside projects is frowned on by most companies, especially if they think it may be taking time you otherwise would have spent on company projects.

Unless your project is fully functional and marketable as it stands (which does not seem to be the case from your description), it is really just an idea, not dealable software. Therefore, the best procedure is to just drop it. If your boss asks about it (very unlikely), just say that it is in a very immature state of development.

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