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Copyright Question

Posted on 2009-06-28
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Last Modified: 2012-05-07
Hi everyone I wonder if anyone could help me with a little legal problem I have come across.  I have been employed by a group of companies on the books over the last several years.  My roles and responsibilities were never really given to me in a formal job description. My letter of appointment merely stated I was to be the groups IT engineer taking care of their day to day IT needs.  This I have done covering machine and software based repairs including training where required.  As I progressed I became more interested in Office for developers and visual basic and as such trained myself through reading, night school and this excellent site to be able to write the odd application or two that are in day to day use within the group. No input was given in my training by the company.  My question is if I were to leave the groups employ do I own the copyright to my applications?  I have had varying advice from different people and have tried to find the answer in IT law but am struggling. The office developer and visual basic enterprise packages I used to produce my work were both purchased personally by me and as such I had the license to redistribute. Again the group would not invest in the software as I was not employed to develop.  I have also progressed to writing and maintaining their websites which was also beyond my original remit. The reason I am asking the question is that the group is now looking to outsource my job to cut costs.  One further point that may have a bearing is that I did insert a license screen that had to be agreed before use of any new install by the user.  It stated that the software was licensed on a WORK LICENSE which was defined as free use of my software while I was still under the groups employ.  This was done more to make the product look professional than to resolve a dispute but thought it may have a bearing.

Thank you in advance.
Richard
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Question by:richardsoapy
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by:
Experienced Member earned 250 total points
ID: 24732479
It appears that you own the copyright based on your careful description.  I assume you have the source code as well for your applications. About all you can do is at the day they say they no longer need you that you own the applications you developed on your own time and at your own expense. ... Thinkpads_User
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by:richardsoapy
ID: 24734150
Thanks for your speedy reply thinkpads _user. This is where the problem may lie as the learning and core of the application were developed outside work time, when the applications were installed and started to be used they then came under my remit for support and as such any further amendments or additions may have been done in their time. My worry is that I remember reading years ago in an IT Law book that if you were employed to write the software direct by the company you retained the copyright but if it was written while in their employ for any other reason as in mine you may have problems retaining it. Having said that my reading was several years ago and new cases may have changed the ruling.

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by:Volox
Volox earned 250 total points
ID: 24740821
I can tell you that job functions change over time and in all my years I have never had a company come to me and say, 'here are your new job functions'.  So whether it was your job when you started or not may not even hold up in the long run.

Whether you legally own the copyright or not isn't really the question you should be asking.  The question you should ask yourself is are you willing to creat bad blood with these people and pay for legal representation through a protracted legal battle in order to have it decided whether you do own the rights or not.

And if you do own the rights, what do you intend to do with them?  Do you want to make them pay for the software?  Or do you want to sell the software to others?  If you wanted to make them pay for the software, then you should have done that from the get go.  Selling it to others is something that you should only consider if you have a really unique product that's tied up with a ribbon; because writing software and selling it as a third party product are two really different things.  And if you wanted to charge the company money for the product, you should have done that from day 1 so as to keep the mine / yours distinction clear.

In many cases the best way to deal with these situations is to be thankful for the experience you have gained and try to negoiate a healthy hourly rate for providing freelance consulting services after the fact.  If you are aiming to be a programmer, chances are that the next company you work for will want an entirely different product than what you've built anyway.  And if you are really concerned about having the rights to the code, then I would work on neogiating that before you are even let go.  Try to get a legal agreement stating the understanding that you own the copyright on the product and that you are providing them with a license to use the product free of charge as long as they do not re-sell or redistribute the product.

Now if on the other hand you aren't trying to profit from the software and just want to be able to use the code again at your next job... that's a bit easier.  Given that you developed the code in your own time, I don't think there is any issue with you keeping a copy of it.  And if you don't care about profit from it and nothing in it is proprietary to your company's inner workings, then you could post it on an open source project to put it in the public domain.  If you do that, then tell your boss, 'hey I was thinking this might be useful to other people and that if it were in an open source project, then we might benefit from some other people contributing their ideas and / or bug fixes'.  Then once it is in the open source world, nobody can complain about you using it in the future (as long as you don't profit from it either).
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Author Closing Comment

by:richardsoapy
ID: 31597723
Thank for the help guys
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