How Open Source Can Mitigate the Harms of Employer Copyright Claims

Joel Spolsky recently wrote — on his new WordPress-powered site :) — about how most software companies add a clause to their employee contracts which claims ownership over any software their employees create, even in their spare time.

That practice has always offended me, but I do understand the reasons for it (which he explains), and I can sympathize with the argument that it’s a necessary evil.

One thing he doesn’t mention, though, is that there’s a really good way to protect the company, while also preserving the employee’s freedom: open source.

At Automattic, we have a copyright clause like Joel talks about, but it has an extra stipulation: side projects have to be released under the GPL. That way, even in the worst-case scenario, I’ll always have access to the code and be free to do whatever I want with it, including forking it to continue my vision for the project.

That’s one of the things that I¬†appreciate most about Automattic; the whole company, including our legal and HR¬†teams, work hard to embed our values into the things we do, and it even shows up in things that are everyday injustices almost everywhere else.

Update: GitHub’s Balanced Employee IP Agreement seems like an even better approach.

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