Do you sign the default contract?

time to read 3 min | 579 words

This is just something that came up recently in a mailing list, we were talking about copyright, ownership and such. The topic of who owns the code you write on your own time (and on your own machines) came up.

The opinion of some people was that the employer may own the code even under those circumstances. It seems that it isn’t usually part of the law (that depend on where you are at, of course), but it is part of standard employment contract templates.

When I started looking for a job, I insisted on taking the employment contract home and going over it with:

  • a calm mind
  • having another set of eyes go over it

I had one case of not properly reading what I was signing on with bad consequences, I learned since then.

There is no such thing as a standard contract, you can always negotiate.

For that matter, I rejected an offer from one place after verbal agreements that we reached didn’t get into the contract (twice!). I decided that if they were trying to effectively cheat me when I wasn’t even working for them, I had better things to do than to put my head into this sickbed.

Some of the things that I found in employment contracts are of the sort that would make your head curl. Non compete agreements that basically say that you are not allowed to do any work (for anyone) for 2 years after you stop working for the company. Ownership on anything you do (be in software artifacts, a book about flowers and quite possibly any children you have during your employment terms).

Some of them are unenforceable at court, but you would be at a much better position if you didn’t have to deal with annoying section in a contract that you are signed on in the first place.

My usual approach to reading contracts is to debug them, assuming that the other side is nefarious, evil, double dealing and likes kicking puppies before breakfast. Most places will go with the “Try and you shall succeed” method for contracts. If you signed on to them without complaints, they are good. If you object to something, they can amend the contract to be more reasonable. It isn’t that they are nefarious, or that they even plan to act according to the contract. But it is best if they don’t have any leverage on you.

An interesting point that I run into is that it is often useful to be bold when negotiating a contract. I deleted the non compete clause for my employment contract when I viewed it, and required a lot of clarifications about what of my work amounts to company’s property. I followed the same logic as they did, “Try and you shall succeed”, if they didn’t care about that, I was good.

We ended up with a 1 year limitation for clients that they sent me to, and agreeing that any software work that I am making on the company’s time or using their equipment belong to the company, which I considered reasonable.

Not reading the contract is a crime, once you did, be very careful in deciding what is acceptable and what isn’t. And if you are already signed on a contract, make sure that you know what is in it.