You Don’t Own My Soul

I'm just getting back from WordCamp Minneapolis where I met great people, talked about business models, ate great food, and had a lot of fun. There was one thing, and actually it was just a single sentence, that really bothered me.

Anything you code we own.

This comment was made by a business owner in reference to his developer writing some personal code at home. Ugh. There's something about this attitude that makes me cringe. The concept of owning everything isn't fair to anyone. It robs the employee of their drive to excel and then that robs the business of a hard working employee. Nobody wins.

How Business Transactions Work

Let's get break this down to the basics. When you contract for someone or you're their employee you are trading your time for their money. That's how it works on a fundamental level. If you want me to build you a website for $1,000 and I do that then I'll exchange the website (and nothing more) for the fee (and nothing more). The same goes for working for someone. I'll do 40 hours per week of web development for a weekly fee.

Modern Day Contracts Eff it All Up

This all works fine and dandy on a theoretical level. But then when you read contracts that businesses give you, it's amazing what they put in there:

  • All intellectual property I produce during the period of work belongs to the company, regardless of its nature, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the work I am performing for the company, and regardless of whether or not I produce it on my own time.
  • All intellectual property I produce during a period of time (commonly some months) after the work ends belongs to the company.
  • All intellectual property I have ever produced in my life belongs to the company, barring that which is listed in an appendix to the contract.
  • I may not create intellectual property on my own time and be remunerated for it by anyone other than the company during the time I work for them.
  • The onus is on me to prove that I own any of my own intellectual property.

To be honest – they're kinda ridiculous. All of these clauses purposefully put the employee into an impossible legal position. Here's how a contract should read:

What I produce for you while working for you on your software is yours, and everything else is mine.

Simple and fair to both parties involved. It's really quite a shame that we have to put common sense into contracts…

Why Businesses Do It

I get why businesses do it. They need to make money to stay in business – that's also plain and simple. But they're going about it the wrong way. When you try to squeeze every single nickel out of your employees by taking control of their pet projects you only end up with bitter, apathetic, and uninspired workers. Good luck getting them to ever go above and beyond again. And isn't that what companies look for? People who want to grow and develop themselves, self starters, people who can look at things with a fresh set of eyes and see the opportunities others didn't.

I have a news flash for you – none of these things happen when you take away someone's internal motivation.

I've had plenty of product ideas while working for someone else: some were pretty awful, some were mediocre, and some were fan freakingtastic. In fact my first plugin was Jotform Integration which I created because I hated doing the same work over and over. And I learned a lot from it. I learned how to create a plugin, how to support users, how to add extra features, and how to keep the code fully backwards compatible. All of these are hugely beneficial for my employer and it saved me many hours or research on work time down the road.

You've heard of Google right? They give their employees work time to hack on whatever they want – including personal projects – so while those guys in Silicon Valley are giving employees extra “free” time at work we're taking it all away? What are we thinking? Why do we think we can develop a policy effectively the opposite of Google's and succeed?

How We Should Do It

  1. You own exactly what your employees create for you. You don't own their ideas or their side projects.
  2. If an employee approaches you with an idea give them the opportunity to spend some work time working on it in exchange for partial ownership. If they turn you down then let them run with it.

The worst thing you can do is shut them down. If they want to release it for free – let them! Give them a couple hours of work time to polish it up and then put your logo on it. They'll probably be ok with that.

I can't speak for every employee but I'm in it for the long haul. I'm not trying to rob you – I'm trying to find my way in the world just like everyone else. If you want a happy & productive employee don't take their ideas away from them. Help them grow their idea and you might be able to grow along with it.

One thought on “You Don’t Own My Soul

  1. Better yet – don’t enter in to employee / employer relationships! This has been a “thing” for me over many years (since working for an over-bearing employer in the broadcasting industry). I don’t hire employees, but I _DO_ utilize freelancers extensively and work for others (when my limited marketable skills allow) on a contract basis. Not because I’m an evil, greedy, cheapskate … because it allows both parties exactly the kind of freedom they both deserve.

    I believe there is greater creativity, liberty, ability to achieve, and accountability if people are in business for themselves and do business as peers.

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