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.