United States Software Engineer here.

Can my employer legally make me sign something that says they own any code I may write(including at home)? I know they can terminate me at anytime for any reason. My question is: is such a agreement even valid? They allow you do to stuff in the side but it all has to be pre approved by management.

To me, best case is that it is legal but really annoying.

  • 7
    If you want to know what is legal,ask a lawyer. – HLGEM Apr 22 '16 at 21:00
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    And please remember that what is legal is moot point if you don't have the resources to fight it in court. – HLGEM Apr 22 '16 at 21:02
  • Even if you have the resources - you may loose them. Is the battle worth it? Anyway most companies will not contest if the code is not in conflict with the day job or any of there other businesses. – Ed Heal Apr 22 '16 at 21:48
  • But OP (hopefully) does have the resources to have the agreement reviewed by a lawyer. At a minimum limit damages. It is likely to be a very one sided document. – paparazzo Apr 22 '16 at 22:46
  • I have never had a company say "we insist" when I say "please take that out of the contract." – Amy Blankenship Apr 22 '16 at 22:54

From http://www.brightjourney.com/q/working-company-intellectual-property-rights-stuff-spare-time

There are a number of other states with similar laws. I've compiled a list of states that have laws restricting what IP employers can claim ownership of:

California* - Cal. Lab. Code 2870-72
Delaware - Del. Code Ann. tit. 19 805
Illinois - 765 Ill. Comp. Stat 1060/2
Kansas - Kan. Stat. Ann. 44-130
Minnesota - Minn. Stat. 181.78
North Carolina - N.C. Gen. Stat. 66-57.1-.2 Washington - Wash. Rev. Code Ann. 49.44.140, .150
Utah - Utah Code Title 34 Chapter 39

The California statute also requires an employer to inform employees about the law. Note that the laws that govern your employment contract are usually based on the state in which you work, not the state the company is incorporated in. And, as always, if you have questions about your employment contract, have a lawyer help you understand it and how it applies to state law. Also, this list may not be comprehensive. If you know of any other states, please add a comment and I'll update the answer.

  • 1
    You should probably actually answer the OP's question on this thread and not just link to another site (even though that reference is well-written and an excellent reference). Especially if the link changes, your "answer" would not be helpful. – Jim Apr 23 '16 at 1:22

They can't 'make' you sign anything, but they could make your continued employment contingent on it.

Joel Splosky originally answered a question like this, but links to the answer seem dead.

The tl;dr; is that you are being paid for your intellectual output. They are essentially paying you a salary to create things for them. This is not constrained to just the time you are in the office. So yes, they can make this claim. They are however, giving you an out. So if you work for a gaming company and you are being paid to create games, then creating one on the side is likely within the bounds of something they would expect you to be creating for them. However, if you are working say in the financial industry and you create a game, you might be more likely to get approval to proceed.

So unless you are creating something very similar to what you do for the company this arrangement should not be too much of an issue.

I should note that I had a coworker that creating something that was completely within his normal job requirements and tried to leave the company and run with his idea. He was asked by the company to turn over all his work. I don't recall anyone saying he got screwed either. The general consensus was 'what was he thinking'

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    The link to Joel Spolsky's answer is in Ronnie W.'s answer. – gnasher729 Apr 24 '16 at 22:44

If you are a w-2 employee who is not an independent contractor then all of the work you do while being paid for them or on their projects is inherently owned by them unless you have a special contract stating that you will retain copyright of code you write. This becomes even more complicated if you are writing code that extends or changes an existing platform that has it's own copyright information.

If you do work at home that is not in any way related to a work project and you are off the company clock, then that code is yours. However there is a caveat, and that is the fact that they are requiring you to bring outside projects in to management for approval. Depending on your contract, they could claim ownership of those jobs and simply award you the work hours to do it under their name. If that is the case (and it sounds like it might be), then all of that code is also theirs.

Section 101 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the U.S. Code) defines a “work made for hire” in two parts: a) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment b) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use 1. as a contribution to a collective work, 2. as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, 3. as a translation, 4. as a supplementary work, 5. as a compilation, 6. as an instructional text, 7. as a test, 8. as answer material for a test, or 9. as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.


If you are an independent contractor you have an entirely different scenario. Typically the only work that is inherently "work for hire" for a contractor is listed in section (b) above. This means that the company can only own your code if they expressly state so in your employment contract.

I don't think much more can be said on this without seeing the actual contract and it's wording.

  • 1
    actually that might not be true ownership of related work depends on which state you are in and your contract – Pepone Apr 24 '16 at 10:22
  • @Pepone I am pretty sure that is exactly what I was saying. – LindsayMac May 18 '16 at 0:12

They cannot make you sign anything.

This may be better for law.stackexchange.com

Anything you create is the extreme but it happens. The next level would be anything the company sells or is developing. Then only stuff you create on company time and / or resources.

If you are currently working and your employer is asking (or even forcing) you to sign this document maybe you should talk to an attorney.

If they are asking several people to sign the document you could try to form a group to share legal cost to at least get a lawyer to review the document. He / she can tell you if it is enforceable and possible alterations to terms that would benefit you. What if there was a clause that tried to claim ownership to you knowledge even if you have not started any work. Does it even attempt to restrict you from posting open source or working on and open source project. I heard of a case that even wanted to restrict open source participation. IANAL but if there is stuff in the document you don't understand I recommend you get a attorney to review it.

  • They can't make you sign, but you can't make them hire you. Pick your battles, understand what you are signing, and if anything worries you discuss whether it means what you think it means and whether any part of it is negotiable. – keshlam Apr 23 '16 at 1:46
  • @keshlam My employer to me implies the OP is currently employed. – paparazzo Apr 23 '16 at 9:23
  • If already employed, they should know what they signed and what their employer's p policies are -- or ask HR for that info – keshlam Apr 23 '16 at 10:16
  • So now "Can my employer legally make me sign" is a document they already signed? Have a good day but this is going no where. – paparazzo Apr 23 '16 at 10:28

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