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I'm 15, and I was talking to my friends about what we wanted our future careers to be. I told them that I would like to have a job in the computer science industry (more specifically software development), and in my free time develop indie games that I could sell on the Android store to pull in a bit more cash.

They told me that the contract for lots of jobs will say something like: "As long as you are working for us, you cannot develop anything outside of what you are developing for us", or, even worse, "You can no longer develop anything by yourself for the REST OF YOUR LIFE!!!".

I'd never heard anything like this before and it has me a little concerned. So my question would be, do lots of careers in the computer science industry make you have to accept this kind of stuff? About how many jobs would make you sign this contract? And perhaps a little more specific info. on what this contract really means?


Right now I live in Ontario, Canada. Let's assume this is also where I will be living when I become an adult. I do not in fact live in an igloo ;)

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closed as not constructive by Jim G., Walter, Dynamic, gnat, Glenn Nelson Jan 12 '13 at 15:47

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It depends on the jurisdiction and the company. If you start working on an open source project now, and keep it up, you may be able to parlay it into a general exemption from this rule if you end up at a company that does this in a jurisdiction which allows it. – James McLeod Jan 12 '13 at 4:39
@JamesMcLeod So, about what amount of companies would have you accept these rules? Half? More/Less than half? – Aaron Jan 12 '13 at 4:48
No idea, and the landscape may change between now and when you get a job; if we're lucky, Ontario will get a law similar to California making such clauses unenforceable. – James McLeod Jan 12 '13 at 4:55
You have to get specific: Where do you live? Where do you want to live? If it's California (where I am) then there is a law against this type of employment contract. Michigan? I think they are trying to change it, but right now there's a problem. Some other state/country? Get specific. – Peter Rowell Jan 12 '13 at 5:21
I might want to add that if you're good enough, and the industry keeps heading roughly the same direction, you'll be in a position to reject jobs with overly restrictive contracts - really good software developers are in extremely high demand, and right now, the trend is further down that road. – tdammers Jan 12 '13 at 11:32
up vote 12 down vote accepted

As James McLeod remarked, whether you can have "side projects" all depends on the company, and how the local legal jurisdiction treats employer/employee relationships.

For instance, Texas supports companies in enforcing these aspects of employment agreements. I knew a programmer in the '70s who worked in Houston for a company that said, "any creative work you do outside the company belongs to us." He had to get special permission to sell little clay figurines he made on the weekends at flea markets.

On the other hand, in California, state law prohibits employers from enforcing such clauses in an employment agreement. As a result, many of the really competent programmers I know in Silicon Valley work on side projects, including iPhone and Android apps as well as open source projects. In fact, many employers in the Bay Area actively look for people who do that, as a sign of their competence and initiative.

Most such restrictions only apply as long as you work for the company. As far as employment agreement clauses applying "the rest of your life", I've never seen or heard of such a thing in nearly 40 years in the work force, and I doubt US courts would find them enforceable. What you run into more commonly are limited-duration "non-compete" clauses which say something like, "you can't go to work for a competitor of ours, or start a company that competes with us, for X period of time", typically 2-5 years. And again, in California, non-compete clauses are not legally enforceable.

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+1 for the unenforeability of "can't program for life". When the contract ends and they stop paying the money, the relationship ends. You can't enforce your laws on them and they can't enforce any clauses on you. It's that simple (there are few exceptions in form of NDAs, but those are the exception, not the rule). – Hubert Kario Jan 12 '13 at 15:10
Thank you for a good answer! That got rid of a few worries I've had. – Aaron Jan 12 '13 at 17:10

Remember that you get to choose whether you work at a place with such restrictions or not. Just say "thank you very much, but I'm not going to sign that". Granted, there are economic factors that may make you feel like you must work somewhere, but ultimately it's still your decision.

For what it's worth, I've been working in the industry 30ish years and have never had such restrictions, and wouldn't work for a company that had them. To me, such requirements a red flag alerting me to the fact that the company is short-sighted and controlling. Who wants to work in that sort of environment?

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This is certainly a YMMV question and will ultimately depend upon the jurisdiction that you are working within as well as the company you choose to work for. Keep in mind that not all jurisdictions have strong intellectual property laws, or the laws may not be enforced / enforceable.

Case in point, I have been bound to the following IP agreements at one point or the other in my career so far.

  1. The copyright of all software development I did while employed belonged to my employer, including work done off-hours. (Ironically, I signed this agreement while in California)
    • I could petition for the rights to a project (either before, during, or after) development to become my own.
    • I could also identify projects as my own prior to signing the agreement (which I didn't have)
    • Later on, a program was started to where I could petition for the rights to work generated for the employer but had been mothballed or otherwise killed off. I thought that option was pretty cool.
  2. A written agreement stated that anything I developed for the employer or anything developed during working hours that was also within the employer's domain space belonged to the employer.
    • Video games, for example, would be outside of the domain space so I would clearly own the project.
    • I also had the ability / option to document when development was done as well as on what equipment. Demonstrating it was off-hours and on my equipment was sufficient to prove my ownership.
  3. There wasn't a firm agreement in place, i.e. wasn't in writing, but the expectation was anything I did for the firm belonged to the firm and anything I did on my own was my own.
    • British and North American common law interpretations would support this type of arrangement even if it wasn't in place. Simply - work I do for my employer belongs to my employer. Work I do for me on my time belongs to me.
  4. There wasn't any agreement or expectations in place.
    • Again, common law interpretations would have held here.

I have never heard of an IP agreement extending beyond the length of employment. Non-disclosure agreements can extend past the term of your employment, but that deals with IP disclosure not the ownership of it.

Non-compete clauses do exist, but their enforcement can be spotty.

It's worth keeping in mind that the legal system continues to push and define the edges of agreements. Just because you're required to sign something at the beginning of your employment doesn't mean that it will be enforceable later on in your career. Case in point - the agreement I signed in California that was later invalidated.

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Pff I wouldn't sign such a contract and to be honest I wouldn't care about such a clause as well. While it might be legally correct, it's not like you can check it. And if you ever get in trouble, you pay the fine and quit your job the very same instant -- which is why they will probably never encounter such a situation.

It is important to realize that companies attempt to protect their intellectual property. They also protect that you work a couple of hours a week. That does most certainly not mean that they own your life or what you do with it.

Either way, I would personally always pick your studies because you can see yourself working in that industry for a long time. It's important to have a good feeling about that, all the rest (including contracts) can always be negotiated and changed.

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It's not necessarily a penalty of paying a fine, but rather acknowledging your employer owns the intellectual property rights of what you have worked on, and that you can't profit from it (in jurisdictions where this clause is enforceable). – James McLeod Jan 12 '13 at 17:07
@JamesMcLeod to be honest I don't think that was the question: the question was how the real world works and if companies 'own you'. While I admit my approach is not always pretty and most employers don't really like it, I merely described how reality looks like. Most employee's don't even read their contract thoroughly, let alone that they care about these situations or act on it. And if you get in trouble because you're misbehaving, there's always room for discussion before things get ugly. Companies definitely don't own your ass, they just pay for some of your time. Just my 2 cents. – Stefan de Bruijn Jan 19 '13 at 15:35

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