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I recently worked for a (UK) medium sized company on an in-house IDE plugin tool. I thought it looked generally useful, but probably needed a different direction to be relevant for people with my interests.

I no longer work for that company and I was thinking of making a similar tool for myself using the experience I gained on the project as well as some of the ideas covered.

My understanding of things is that they had looked to commercialise it and had discussions with an Intellectual Property lawyer to check if anything was patentable, which didn't apparently result in any patents. I don't think the project will be comercialised as the company specialises in consulting contracts for other companies and has no history of making products.

I know I am being vague, but I would like to know if there is anything I should consider (in terms of legality) before I continue.

Thanks in advance!

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Consider deliberately making it different "enough" to not be a direct competitor. – user1249 Aug 28 '11 at 8:36

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I hold two totally opposing views on this...

Firstly, I know that its always generally easier to ask for forgiveness rather than to ask for permission...

However, secondly I also know that people (and even smaller UK companies) in general are quite open to good ideas - and if you can just get a "yeah - that'll be fine" email out of someone then that would leave you clear to hack away. Who knows, they might even let you use some of their source.

It depends a lot on the people involved and on the way you left, but I'd ask someone you know at the company if doing an open source variation of their tool would be OK. It might help if you also ply them with complements about how much you appreciated their skill, intelligence, etc.

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I think asking for permission in writing is an important point regardless of blurry ethics of the situation. I will get in touch with them, thanks! – Matt May 31 '11 at 19:23

as usual, talk to a lawyer with experience in this area

i think if you are taking advantage of your knowledge and experience to provide a different tool, it's fine

but if you are just re-creating their tool for your own purposes, ask permission

if you're not sure, do both

and talk to a lawyer in all cases!

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Running with ideas from something you have seen is no big deal. It happens all the time - for example if you saw something for Eclipse and thought you could do better, would there be the same question? Restraining somebody from using what is in their head is difficult at the best of times. On the other hand, if you have a copy of the source code that you intend using, then just don't... that really is a big no-no. – quickly_now May 29 '11 at 23:27
@quickly_now: yes, the line between "I saw it on the History Channel" and "I helped build something like it while under contract" is often blurry - if you squint at it and spin around in circles long enough. :D – Steven A. Lowe May 30 '11 at 2:22

Ask first, even if what you plan to do is legal, its on fairly thin ethical grounds without their permission. It could be significantly career limiting if they were unhappy with your actions. I would not would employ someone who steals ideas, the accusation alone would be enough to put you application in the reject file.

Ask in a way that "no" is harder to get to then "yes". I.e. "I'm going expand on that idea we had and make an open source project from it, are there any improvements or features you would like to see added?" rather than "Can I steal your idea?"

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