Do I need to inform my employer before contributing to an Open Source Project?

Danese Cooper danese at
Sat Jul 7 21:25:35 UTC 2007


IANAL, but I've been working with big companies for many years to  
make Open Source possible inside.  It's an unfortunate part of "at  
will" employment in America that many states support an employer's  
rights to all your inventions while under employ.  This is a long- 
standing rule.  So for instance when Steve Wozniak made the first  
Apple motherboard in the late 1970s, he had to take it in to his  
employers at HP to ask if they wanted to exercise their rights to  
it.  They said, "No Thanks" and the rest is history...but he was  
legally required to ask.  More recently in some states this right has  
been successfully challenged (California happens to be one of them).

In California you can (thanks to a couple of lawsuits) now work on  
whatever you want on your private time (although you are well advised  
to document the fact that you have expended none of your employer  
resources...not even the copy machine...while working on your private  
invention).  So you *can* work on an open source project without your  
employers consent in California, but you would be wise to use use  
your own computer, your own internet connection, your own email  
account, etc. and of course you can't expose your company's trade  
secrets as part of your after hours work.  Responsible project  
communities (like Apache) will require you to sign a consent form  
that documents that you have the right to participate.

At Sun we decided that since the bulk of employees worked in  
California, any employee should have the right to pursue Open Source  
and we wrote a company guideline to this effect.  Yet several years  
later, we were still having individual employees come to us with  
complaints about their managers (outside of California).  The right  
to all your work is a deep-seated concept in the minds of bosses who  
want to make sure they are getting every scrap of productive work out  
of you.  Companies like Google and 3M who allow "personal projects"  
during work are in theory more enlightened.  During times of very low  
unemployment in the technology sector (like 2000 in Silicon Valley)  
there is opportunity for workers to push back on draconian employment  
policies.  As I always say, nothing ever changes without somebody  
throwing their body in front of the train...but whether you are that  
body or not is up to you, ultimately.  Nobody can give you that advice.


On Jul 7, 2007, at 1:59 PM, Joseph Hick wrote:

>> It depends on local law.  Under California law, you
>> need not
>> inform your employer at all.  Under New York law,
>> everything
>> you do belongs to your employer unless you have
>> agreed otherwise
>> in writing.  YMMV.  IANAL; TINLA.
> i don't understand how can the law allow my employer
> encroach on my personal life? what i do in my spare
> time is my personal life. if i want to write a
> software that doesn't compete with my employer's
> products and i want to give it to my friends and other
> people on net for free, why should the law allow my
> employer to stop me from doing so?
> i don't need the permission of my employer to have sex
> in my spare time. then why does the law require that i
> take permission to write code i want to give away to
> others for free?
> please help me understand this.
> ______________________________________________________________________ 
> ______________
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