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Engineer refusing to file/disclose patents (stackexchange.com)
389 points by chrisbennet 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 226 comments

Upper management probably all patted themselves on the back after cutting the payouts. They'll tout that they "saved the company thousands, every year." In most industries innovation is key, cutting engineer pay for what is essentially voluntary work is setting themselves up for obsoletion in the near future. I don't blame the guy for "not remembering" what his boss was talking about.

I imagine that someone looked at the program and saw it as largely a waste of money -- that it's unlikely that the patents being churned out at 2-3 a week, as IP were not worth the money they were paying for them, and a side-door bonus for engineering staff, they were not the most efficient means to talent retention & compensation.

It seems the better solution might have been to tighten up the review process -- keep the money the same but accept fewer. If the individual contributor in question was really as good as reported, he would have been untouched.

> they were not the most efficient means to talent retention & compensation

And yet they are about to lose a senior engineer who is nearly invaluable to the company over $110k of previous bonuses. Funny, that.

this is the solution for sure. Having been through the patent process myself, I can't imagine what sort of BS patents they were churning out for an engineer to be able to have 2-3 a week. Making them conditional to review would have really improved on this

> I can't imagine what sort of BS patents they were churning out for an engineer to be able to have 2-3 a week.

I interpret that part of the question as the program as a whole seeing 2-3 patents per week, spread over the entire engineering team.

The employee in question produced 30 patents over two years -- still an astonishing rate, but evidently worthwhile because 'all of these inventions are used in our products'.

Not really astounding. That's 1 or 2 per month. It's a reasonable amount. It's far from what a patent mill or patent troll could generate.

> I can't imagine what sort of BS patents they were churning out for an engineer to be able to have 2-3 a week

Valuable IP often has several implementations. When I go through the process of parenting something, usually 3 - 5 different ways to accomplish similar goals are patented. Building a patent moat if you will.

Further, not all patents need to be highly valuable. Volume almost matters as much as quality, because you’re less likely to be sued if you have the ability to counter sue with 2000 patents. Each patent infringement needs to be defended which costs thousands a piece.

When Samsung and Apple started going at it. It woke up most of the larger companies to that. BS or not, still value if they have an semblance of an idea

That's 2-3 a week across the entire company (of unknown size), not a single engineer.

From the post it seems like they were. They'd get from $300 to $5000 and the engineer in question seemed to be hitting the upper range most of the time.

> It seems the better solution might have been to tighten up the review process -- keep the money the same but accept fewer.

I'd argue that with tighter restriction, you'd need to increase the payoff, to compensate the increased workload.

The same Upper management will move on to other companies now, and make them obsolete too.

There is no way to prove they did bad at their previous jobs.

"Innovation is key" is a mantra that sounds good, but it's not true. It's what people want to believe. It's like saying you need to constantly buy lottery tickets so you don't risk being a poor retiree.

If you have established a business and you bank on "innovation" your likelihood of anything from a net loss to catastrophic failure is actually quite high. In the long run, most companies fail anyway, whether they attempt to innovate or not.

Case in point, those companies that did survive in the S&P 500 since its inception don't strike me as particularly innovative:


3M, Dow, DuPont, Boeing, IBM, J&J, Lockheed, Monsanto, and lot of others on the list do quite innovative stuff. Its the just that failures get publicized by the news cycle as a waste of money and successes do not.

Or the probably bad reading of Clayton Christensen that concludes that big businesses simply can’t innovate.

That’s like a list of the most innovative companies in America. Do you know how much technology goes into say paper making? At Georgia Tech we had an entire research institute for paper science.

>Case in point, those companies that did survive in the S&P 500 since its inception don't strike me as particularly innovative:

Really? Except food i think there has been lots of innovation in the particular industries. Care to name innovative examples?

Even in food, you'd find a lot of innovation, in packaging, processing, additives...

Most of the companies that did not survive did so because they did not innovate, they did not change with the times, that did not respond to market pressures or changes

Do you honestly believe these companies failed because they innovated too much?

> His employment agreement states that any and all intellectual property he generates while employed with us, even during weekends/free-time, is the property of the company.

If I had such a clause in a contract, I would turn down the opportunity. Maybe I am missing something obvious here, but I don't see the point of this.

Even worse, this:

> any and all intellectual property

sounds to me like one couldn't do anything creative in their spare time. Even a picture painted would belong to their employer.

> Even a picture painted would belong to their employer.

Taken at face value, it's much worse than that. All the family photos he has taken, that novel on the back of his mind he wanted to write, that poem he wrote for his wife's birthday, the all belong to the company now. If he made a personal sex tape for his and his wife's enjoyment, the company can request it and sell it online or upload it to PornHub at their sole discretion.

There is no way in hell I would ever sign such a clause, unless there is literally life and death on the line.

> that novel on the back of his mind he wanted to write

No kidding! I used to work at Google and we had an orientation session on the IP policy. I asked if it would apply to a novel and was told that it would (but that they would probably assign the copyright if I asked).

How charitable of them to "probably" assign copyright.

This made me chuckle. I’ve made a few sexy videos with my wife and just thought of my manager saying, “Welp, that’s ours now.”

That sounds very prone to abuse...

And malicious compliance

All coding job offers in California that I’ve received have come with an appendix which invalidates such clauses. It’s a major reason to work in Cali, if I understand correctly. In practice, if I’m working for my salary then I don’t have energy to innovate on my own, beyond conference talk demos that take a few weekends max.

That’s because it’s against the law in California for a company to claim unrelated IP done on off hours with personal equipment. Don’t think they wouldn’t try it if they could.

This, along with non-competes being unenforceable, is why California will always have the most tech startups.

So the employer can literally claim the copyright for all of the employee’s speeches and DMCA them if so they choose? It seems that this can be argued as a violation to the first amendment.

That puts a different spin to phrase "I will give up my first born for...."

As many others have mentioned, there is an exception in California for things done using no company time and resources, and unrelated to your work or the company's area of business or "future anticipated research". This exception required by California law is often copied verbatim into employment agreements, even if you are working outside of california. However, the last clause of this term essentially de-fangs the term entirely if you work at any medium sized company.

I have worked at two FANG companies, and in both cases I crossed off this clause from the contract and initialed the line before I signed it. I told them that I couldn't sign that line and what I did, and in both cases, they said they would "get back to me" with what legal said. In both cases it never came up again, and I started working having signed only the modified contract.

I think that's a fair comprise of who owns what, and I would suggest anyone else to do the same thing I did.

Has an employment lawyer vetted this approach? I suspect that's not really effective...

What approach? Negotiating a contract before signing it. The only potential problem I see is that is that he didn't say that he had a representative from the company also initial the modification, and doesn't necessarily have a paper trail documenting that he informed them of the modification.

I do have an email trail in one case, but the other case was only over the phone.

One of my employers even had a process in place where you submit things you do off work or plan todo and you can officially get these approved before signing, like running a side business, etc. Its a contract, so its negotiable. HR likes to create the impression it's a static document, but it's not. Future employees have a lot of underleveraged negotiation powers, especially at large companies I think.

What, signing a modified contract? Both parties are free to negotiate.

It gets even worse as you read further:

IT has searched his OneDrive, laptop, etc., and we can't find a single shred of code/documentation on these ideas

I'd say the company got what it deserves.

Company has the right to do that pretty much anywhere assuming they own laptop, pay for onedrive etc.

They have the right, certainly. But as an employee of a tech firm, if I ever learned that my employer had exercised that right on me, I'd hand in my resignation the same day.

Trust runs both ways, and once you blow that trust with your employee, you can't regain it.

If you have a forced vacation period, your employer is auditing your emails/drives/devices. It's perfectly understandable that they search your work assets regularly (and randomly) as espionage happens. They probably mentioned they would do this at some point long ago.

Yadda yadda, “what if” argument. The context of the parent post is obviously not a “force majeure” situation but a more damning frisk, hoping to find enough to fire the man and sue him into bankruptcy... sleazy

How would you even know that the company searched your corporate OneDrive account?

In the USA they dont have to tell you when they do, so it might have happened already and you'd never know.

Difference between what a company has the rights to do, and deliberately annoying an employee.

That's very standard in USA, no laws preventing that and employees usually sign a contract allowing IT to do this without having to tell. I heard some companies even make emails disappear, e.g. if you wanna join Blind the sign up email might magically be deleted via some rule. GSuites supports and enables such policies to be implemented very easily.

> If I had such a clause in a contract, I would turn down the opportunity.

That may sound bizarrely unfair to you, but elsewhere (Germany) it's actually the law (but only for inventions/patents, not other IP).

The employee has to tell the employer about any patentable idea, even if not in the general field of his employment, and even if having occurred after hours.

The employer can then either claim the patent (but has to pay something), or he can release the invention (and the employee can patent it on his own).

This is only partially true.

You are talking about Arbeitnehmererfindungen and those only belong to the employer if they are created on company time or if they are related to the work (Diensterfindung) every other invention belongs to the inventor (freie Erfindung) see §18 arbnerfg (3) althought you have to submit the invention to your employer if it could be related to the work (1-2)


You're right, I conflated "telling the employer" (required for both kinds of inventions) with the procedure of payment or release (only applicable for one kind). My bad!

> That may sound bizarrely unfair to you, but elsewhere (Germany) it's actually the law

Yes, plenty of countries have bizarrely unfair laws.

(edit: it appears that the law in Germany is not as bad as initially presented by the parent comment).

The Netherlands also has these types of laws. Judges are especially likely to rule in the employer’s favor the more senior your role is.

The solution is to just make it explicit to your employer / manager what you’re doing, and save the emails / documents.

> The employee has to tell the employer about any patentable idea, even if not in the general field of his employment, and even if having occurred after hours.

Just imagine the complete breakdown if a group of employees actually tried to go through with that: every wacky idea, from self-lacing shoes ("seem something similar in a movie") to bipedal gigawatt wind turbines that walk off to windier locations in a lull ("stomp, stomp, stomp! awesome!"). If they have to tell, some poor soul must be obliged to listen!

Also located in Germany; I was not aware of that regulation. I only had one employment contract before I started my own business, but on neither side of HR, I had situations dealing with this issue. Thanks for pointing out.

I’ve finally found a German law/regulation I take issue with.

Why? It seems pretty good to me.

I did a little googling and it seems, that if you patent something that benefits your company, they can license it from you, and if they patent something you invent, then they have to pay you a revenue share. If they try and fuck you after a disclosure, then you get to keep the patent.

I recind my above statement. That is surprisingly (as an American) reasonable. The comment I replied to made it sound much more onerous, but with those details it sounds very fair.

This comment quotes what the regulation actually states:


I need to look up sometime what happens when you have two jobs. That's uncommon here, but I'm sure the law spells it out.

(Edit: couldn't find it in the law, and will not be in the University library soon to check the legal commentaries — but I still find that question interesting)

They have a dubious law banning 'dual use' security tools too

This is very standard outside of California.

Friends have lost jobs at companies whose names you would recognize. eg M worked part-time as a sound tech in his own recording studio and his software job would mean they owned the rights to that work. M refused to sign the updated contract and ending up leaving the company over it.

I think you mean "in the USA outside of California". It's unthinkable for me in Poland, and I'd guess that in a greater part of Europe it's similar.

As another commenter pointed out the situation in Germany is not significantly better; I can vouch that France also has many areas of weirdness when it comes to those matters. Companies - specifically their legal teams - are incentivized and have every reason to be greedy about what comes out of their employees' brains.

I suspect it's not an insignificant factor in California being disproportionately represented when it comes to invention and innovation over the last half century or so.

Sorry yes, of course.

Microsoft is one of the best companies in this regard. They have a very clear moonlighting policy that the tl;dr is "anything after hours, made using 100% of your own resources, is yours".

That "100% your own resources" part is key, Microsoft provides a lot of free software. Employees working on their own projects have a "clean" setup that has never touched anything provided by Microsoft. Desktop/laptop, accessories, mobile phones, and so forth.

Heck Microsoft has on occasion promoted apps and tools made by its employees on their own time.

That other companies aren't like this confuses me.

There are rules against working on products that directly complete with existing Microsoft products, for obvious reasons, but aside from that, there aren't any real constraints.

(I've had plenty of friends at MS working on side projects that pulled in anywhere from hundreds to thousands a month, those projects tended to be written against MS technology stacks and made the MS Ecosystem better by their existence, why in the world wouldn't Microsoft want that to happen?)

Indeed, the famous Windows Solitaire game was written by a then intern (Wes Cherry) in his spare time in 1988. He never got any money for it, but he was eventually hired for a paying position on the Excel team, so I guess it helped him in that sense.

Google sounds like it's the complete opposite. I've never seriously pursued a job with Google, and don't have first-hand knowledge of the actual policy, but everything I've seen suggests that it's a "Google owns everything you write unless you jump through some really big hoops" and it's been a big part of why I've never seriously thought about applying there.

It's actually basically the same policy, it just tends to get framed in a negative light instead of a positive light. "We own everything you produce unless you used no company resources" and "Everything you produce is yours unless you used company resources" are the same statement, but the former sounds way worse.

As far as I know there are two differences.

a) Google claims ownership of things you produced off-hours with no company resources if the work you were doing off-hours is your job. If you are for example a DL theorist, you are being paid in part for your general skill at coming up with DL theories, not just for the hours you put in at the office. If you come up with a new DL theory in the shower instead of at your desk, Google still owns it.

b) Google claims ownership of innovations made by employees off-hours with no company resources if the innovations in question were already being researched elsewhere at Google or the innovation was already known to Google. Like any sufficiently large technology company, Google has made patentable discoveries that it has elected not to patent so as to maintain them as internal trade secrets. This is to avoid the mess that would ensue if an employee independently came up with one of these discoveries and filed a patent for it and Google had to dispute the patent by demonstrating prior art and in the process revealing their trade secret.

So if you have a new innovation that was produced off-hours and without company resources, you first submit it to Google's legal office and they will let you know whether they (a) consider it part of your job or (b) were already aware of it, and if so they will claim ownership. If you disagree with their decision there's a third party arbitration process so that you can hash it out without risking the exposure of a trade secret.

This is sort of true. You can get copyright waivers for personal projects by filling out a form. They say most projects are approved but in my experience, it seems like they deny a lot of them. One of the two projects I submitted was denied. Other people I know have had a similar experience

Even worse, Google/Alphabet is in so many businesses, it’s probably very hard to do something outside those areas (and near impossible to refute a claim of “oh, another division is working on that”).

Back in the 90s through early 00's when I worked at Microsoft, they had a strict no moonlighting policy. I think they ended it because this was given as a reason no one was writing any mobile phone software for windows phone.

How do they define “after hours” ?

sounds to me like one couldn't do anything creative in their spare time. Even a picture painted would belong to their employer.

Fortunately it seems that most things like this are relatively unenforceable, but IMHO it's still a good idea to keep anonymity/"firewall" what is done on company time from everything else. Don't publish non-work-time material under an identity that could be traced back to your real identity with the company, for example.

And don`t use company resources for personal projects.

To me that's a given, but it seems a lot of people are not too aware of that fact --- I've seen coworkers nonchalantly working on their personal blogs or email or other such things using company property, for example. It irks me, because employees doing that can dilute the argument about owning non-work IP: "why can't we own the stuff you do at home? You're already doing personal stuff at work."

Unfortunately it is a standard boilerplate in many Employment Agreements in the US. Over broad terms written by contract lawyers completely one sided.

Fortunately most of the time if the employer is stupid enough to sue for non-work related IP many courts will toss the case and render the clause void in the agreement. However there have been a few bad rulings as well.

I remember on case where the employer sued an employee over a book they wrote after the book was successful, the employer happened to be having financial problems... If I remember correctly the judge ruled in favor of the employer

>Unfortunately it is a standard boilerplate in many Employment Agreements in the US.

Every organization says it wants to be exceptional, except where it comes to employee rights and compensation. Then it's "sorry but this is just how everyone does it", e.g. "you can't get b tyer treatment elsewhere"

Do you remember the book? Was it related to the area of employment?

I dont, it was several years ago that I read the analysis in an obscure publication, if I recall it was not related to employment, it was a work of fiction and the guy worked as a engineer or some other profession close to that

In Canada, you wouldn't be able to work as a software engineer without signing a contract with such a clause. Investors like these clauses because they don't want some employee saying "Well, this part of the product I wrote in my evenings, so now that you're selling the company, I'm claiming ownership of it." It can be messy.

That said, most companies I've worked for here put that in your contract, but then are more than happy to give you written permission to release rights to (for example) open source projects, or things not related to the business. I worked very briefly for one company which literally tried to assert ownership of photographs we took in our spare time while we worked for them (I won't name them, as they're a little over-litigous). I did not work there for long.

In Canada I worked as a computer technician. I often had to design my own circuits and wiring to solve problems.

The company I worked for owned all my hardware designs.

However, if it was not hardware it was mine. About three years after the company grew I had to sign a contract - the contract clear said they owned all my designs.

I crossed that out, wrote in a clause they only got hardware designs made in shop, signed and date it, THEN had the president (small company still) also sign and date the changes.

Even if legally challenged, I could prove in court I was acting honestly and the expections of the signed contract.

this company behavior should be extremely illegal. noone can tell you you cant program FOSS in your own time(!!! such as they cant prohibit you from drinking beer on friday night with friends). and claiming stuff such as "Well, this part of the product I wrote in my evenings, so now that you're selling the company, I'm claiming ownership of it." should be equally easy to dismiss by judge as 'crap argument'.

I quit my job over that at one of the largest Canadian tech companies soon after the golden hancufs of acquihire expired. As far I'm aware they lost everyone but two engineers of the acquired company within 18 months.

I've had that clause in initial version of the contract at every Canadian tech company I've worked at except my current employer - I had to negotiate having it removed, and succeeded except the one time I've mentioned

Just nod if it rhymes with boracle

In some states like Texas this is in fact the case. Worse, your knowledge can be used to keep you from working in the same field because the stuff in your head is deemed property of your employer.

I believe the crucial case was Conley v. DSC Communications Corp

I worked for a company that required me to tell them about all personal software developed for a period after I left the company. I suspect the intent was to make sure I did not create competing software... but the terms were clear and had a small reimbursement for filling it out and sending copies.

They got a bunch of custom ADND software for Windows CE. At some point, I got a phone call asking why I was sending them this stuff. It apparently irritated someone enough they released me from those terms.

This is a great way to demotivate programmers from self-learning and side projects.

Programming used to be my hobby and I was always creating webapps or whatnot. Whatever I learned during off-hours, it improved my productivity at work.

Since starting work at this new company, I have lost all the zeal for programming on the side. It feels unfair. Not that my little apps will ever make enough money to get noticed at work. However, there is always a little voice in my head which keep saying don't spend too much time on this project, you don't own it.

Looking to get out as soon as possible.

How are such clauses even legally possible? It's ridiculous.

> His employment agreement states that any and all intellectual property he generates while employed with us, even during weekends/free-time, is the property of the company.

> even during weekends/free-time

It sounds illegal. In the US, you can really specify such clause in the contract?

Usually, it just means that you ask your employer for an exception of you're doing something in your spare time.

Few employers will want to claim ownership of your mobile game/app or whatever, unless it's related to the company or what it does.

You're supposed to ask your employer if you're allowed to share that dick pick?

Only if you tattoo source code on your.....

I personally prefer to keep my code private by other means. But no judgement, hehe :)

You don't need source code for that. Photos are copyrighted by default, so it's IP. Some companies demand all IP created in spare time.

It's very unlikely that IP not related to software will be ruled to fall under the contract if challenged.

But, hey I'm no lawyer..

AIUI, this is mostly unenforceable in CA.

> If I had such a clause in a contract, I would turn down the opportunity.

It sounds like you haven't worked in tech before? Apple is one company well known for a clause like this.

I do work in tech, in fact I am on the employer side. Our contracts contain clauses to prevent employees from using company property in whatever they do outside work but I would never had the idea to claim their after hour inventions.

How do you define “after hours”? I’ve never worked at a job that had defined “work hours”.

In jobs like what you describe, one approximation of "after hours" would be "when you're not working or at the office and are not in violation of a reasonable expectation/policy to be doing one of those things."

At some employers this would also include "present at the office at a time when you're not expected to do work."

In reality, it would be up to the judge, jury, arbitrator, or hearing officer to apply this phrase to the facts or circumstances of any dispute (possibly with deference to on-point precedential or persuasive case law).

With an on-site contract, "working hours" refers to all times on the premises of the employer (us) except for break time.

For people working remotely, this is more difficult, there’s no clear definition. Eventually, I don’t see a problem there anyway, given we measure by output and prohibit engineers from reusing our stuff in their private projects.

We do not employ people we don’t trust so we never had issues so far.

Also an employer.

I would generally define this as not during work hours. Work hours are flexible, but don't be stupid: just don't interleave work stuff and personal project stuff and use your own equipment and you'll be fine.

ie if you take breaks from work and instead of wasting time on HN or reading news you bang out code on your personal projects, I'm not going to be enthused about that. But if you generally work 10-6 or so, and by 610 you've shut our laptop and you're coding away on your personal laptop? Great, have fun. Please don't burn out.

And ditto re: trust. The way to solve not trusting your employees is to fire them and hire trustworthy ones.

As a concrete example: we have had to implement a lot of data table stuff in javascript. If an employee copied that (functionality, not our code) and productized it, I wouldn't care. We'd probably even license it. I would want a discount on that license :)

This generally only applies in CA, and also to companies that are heavily invested in keeping the goodwill of their employees. Personally, I don't pick fights I can't win, and having valued eng leave is definitely not a win.

> ie if you take breaks from work and instead of wasting time on HN or reading news you bang out code on your personal projects, I'm not going to be enthused about that. But if you generally work 10-6 or so, and by 610 you've shut our laptop and you're coding away on your personal laptop? Great, have fun. Please don't burn out.

That works well enough for employees who work 8 uninterrupted hours per day 5 days per week as their work week. (Even for them, sometimes copyrightable personal projects are different enough to serve the same mentally restorative purpose during the workday that browsing the Internet can, like if it's poetry or designing a sweater.)

But not everyone performs best or happiest like that.

What about the employees that typically work 11-2, go for a gym break 2-4, work 4-6, go for dinner and time with their family, and then work 8pm-2am... but mix some personal side projects into the 8pm-2am part and think up advances on those personal projects while at the gym, plus do extra work for both personal and employer purposes on weekends?

Yes, these patterns are consistent with people I know in the industry. (I'm combining multiple people for anonymity.)

Notice those hours added up to well more than 8 work hours per day and more than 40 per week. If such people can't interleave personal and work stuff, they'll probably spend less time on work stuff overall and give less productivity to the company (if they don't switch to a more permissive employer).

bluntly, not every employee is for every employer.

And this is also for the protection of the employee. I'm a founder, and I can make pretty durable promises, but even my promises aren't 100% durable. If we get bought, or we don't perform and I get fired, my promises no longer matter. The employee doesn't want to be in a situation where he or she has built something valuable, I'm no longer in a position to keep my commitment, and the new owners want a piece.

I see that you're SRE/ops so your work is naturally more bursty, so that may color your perspective. For my company, I'm not sure how we would deal with that, except we don't really keep people on call outside of hours. We hired ops living in E Europe so they come on as we go to bed.

edit: given your suggestions of poetry or sweaters, sure, knock yourself out. I still won't be stoked about working a different business during my hours.

Some of the people I combined in my example are SRE/ops like me (though as of recently I'm now more manager than IC); some are product people, some oversee a bunch of different engineering teams, and I'm including both ICs and executives and many different ages in this amalgam... lots of productive people are bursty. It's chiefly the young single typical-lifestyle neurotypical software application developer that isn't.

There are better ways to protect the employee, though: the legalese can omit time of day / day of week / place of work / equipment used as conditions of IP assignment. My current employer does this. (No it's not based in the US, but it is a startup funded by both US and home-country VCs).

Of course, the employer does own stuff created within the course of employment. Not a problem in any of the plausible future successful or failed exit scenarios.

Last thought: many good people in tech, very much able to do the jobs you ask of them, have ADHD, or kids, or athletic hobbies, or other reasons to do a bursty workday. Sometimes people seemingly outside these categories may turn out to be in them (e.g. new parents). Being incompatible with such workers makes it harder to hire and keep the talent tech companies need to succeed. (Sometimes it's illegal too, but that's a separate conversation.)

Omitting equipment-used from IP ownership is an absolute non-starter. Similarly for time of day; I have to have clean ownership of IP for future funding and/or acquisition.

I feel the same for people who require very bursty working hours. Part of the job -- perhaps the most important part! -- is to collaborate with your team. If you want to spend 90m during the workday to go to the gym, make sure you're not holding your teammates back. We currently have two employees that do that and it works well for everyone. If you require 3 hour breaks mid afternoon, you're probably not going to work here.

Well, all I can do is elaborate on my first-hand anecdote as evidence that it can work in the VC-funded world: my employer has exactly the same corporate-future concerns you listed, uses contract language from a well-known law firm intended to protect their needs as they grow, did not receive any input from me before adopting legalese with these properties, and has already received multiple funding rounds.

And, everyone I've described manages to collaborate enough during the workday (and asynchronously at other times) despite often taking multiple hours per day for things like gym or family. I'm happy that I can hire such people, and I wish you luck in evolving your company to the point where you can similarly access the full pool of qualified candidates.

I think we've continued this conversation thread as much as we usefully can; thanks for an interesting exchange!

It sounds you're missing out on the existence of many companies making do without such clauses if you think someone not accepting them can't be working in tech.

Rule number one: don't piss off your programmers. Programmers produce things that are largely unintelligible to management. The whole reason we have arguments about processes is because we can't measure the productivity of our programmers. It's difficult to even measure the quality of the work without getting other programmers involved. Even if there is a serious bug, how do you determine if it's due to bad luck, sloppy coding or sabotage? If a previously exceptional employee stops being exceptional right after you stressed them out is it because they are being stroppy or because they are stressed and can't perform?

Do not piss off your programmers. They can sink your boat either because they are stressed out and can't perform or even just because they are pissed off. If your company policies involve pissing off your programmers, you are in a pile of trouble. The real answer to this guys question is: If you can't fix your policies so that your programmers are happy, then find another job. This one is done.

Exactly! It made me so angry reading this post that they clearly value the engineer and his ideas, but they are unwilling to compensate him - even before the cuts the payouts were very low.

Instead of trying to fix the problem, he asks how to squeeze the engineer. Unbelievable.

If said engineer is reading this, reach out to me.

> IT has searched his OneDrive, laptop, etc., and we can't find a single shred of code/documentation on these ideas.

A smart engineer is not stupid. Who knew?

> A smart engineer is not stupid. Who knew?

True -- but arrogance and hubris are not unknown among top notch engineers.

I smell serious Privacy concern just in this statement. Could company do that? I wonder why that engineer still working for that company if he is so good & company is playing all these tricks.

A lot of your privacy goes away as an employee!

You will notice here[1] for example, that cameras can be put in workplace bathrooms in many states.

All of your work accounts and work hardware belong to the company and it is your problem if you put personal information on them.

[1] https://www.upcounsel.com/video-surveillance-laws-by-state

That's an interesting and informative read, however one line did catch my eye, and increase my background level of despair at the general maths/stats level of the wider population:

> An overwhelming majority of employers, 48 percent or so

I agree; the most charitable inference is that the 48% inluded the largest employers, and thus covered "an overwhelming majority" of employees - but it would have been so much better if they had said that specifically, and as it is, such an inference is pure speculation.

Are you asking if the company can search the company’s property?

I took the parent question to be asking about where the (personal privacy) line falls:

- Can an employer search a personal laptop (BYOD)?

- What about a personal Dropbox account? Personal emails? What if they are only in the cloud, and not on the device?

- Do these answers change if there are logs showing these services were accessed with a company device during work hours?

- Could they look in his personal laptop bag if they suspected he had a USB drive with the information inside?

These are generally very locality-specific and dependent on the various employment agreements, codes of conduct, etc. that the employee signed, so in general it's not very informative to speculate on where those lines are drawn.

However, I do think these are useful questions that any employee should be able to answer for themselves about their own current employer, if only so that they're cognizant of their rights.

Any device given to employees can have rootkit, legally speaking.

In the USA employees have no privacy. That's all signed away in employment contracts.

So I know the ownership of IP produced on an engineer's own time is pretty dicey (even in California, where it depends on whether the work is in the same field as the company, or something), and most of the time employers seem to have some claim to ownership over all work done by their employees.

And yet loads of people employed by companies work on open source software, write blogs, work on their own stuff, etc and companies don't seem to get involved. So what's the situation here? Is it something like companies legally may be able to assert ownership over work down by employees of their own volition on their own time with their own equipment, but mostly choose not to bother with it?

Assume I have an "ordinary" contract in the USA. Would I need to worry about this if I wanted to write stuff on a blog, assuming it isn't directly related to work I do?

(I understand that if it really matters I should talk to a lawyer, and will not interpret any responses as legal advice, etc. I'm just curious if other professional employers worry about this or just quietly do their own thing)

I always fight to have these clauses reworded in my favour. I'm always prepared to walk away if they don't. The one time I didn't get my way, the wording was very ambiguous, and I got their (okay, sufficiently narrow) interpretation in writing.

>Assume I have an "ordinary" contract in the USA. Would I need to worry about this if I wanted to write stuff on a blog, assuming it isn't directly related to work I do?

In the US it is going to depend on the company, but I feel safe in saying "most" companies don't care about such things and largely limit their interest to the work you do directly for them.

Some employers are quite strict, so avoid those (google, famously). Avoid even a hint of crossover with your employer’s business, use your own equipment and time, and work for a successful company that is too busy with its own customers. If some how you make a billion dollars (you won’t) it might be a problem. A million won’t even be noticed.

With the exception of Waymo going after Uber (which was a really unusual situation), when has Google gone after previous employees over IP?

The compromise way it generally works - there is a very broad 'Assignment of Inventions' agreement you sign as part of your employment and the employer makes it easy to add exemptions to it for your pterodactyl blog and Colossus Mark 2 open source emulator project. And that's it. The last thing anyone, including non-insane employers, wants is an after-the-fact dispute over IP rights, like the people in this story ended up in.

> And yet loads of people employed by companies work on open source software, write blogs, ... [snip] ... Is it something like companies legally may be able to assert ownership

For open source software and blogs, is it feasible to argue that they are a form of free speech thus cannot be owned (or in practice restricted accesses) by companies?

That's an interesting point. I actually talked to a lawyer at my company 6 months ago about contributing to FOSS and their answer was that my work may be owned by my company if I did the work on my own time outside of working hours and therefore wouldn't be mine to put under a free license in the first place. The lawyer declined to comment on what cases my work on a project may be owned by the company or not and said to fill out a conflict on interest form if I decided to work on a project.

That is not how it works. The court might decide in favor of the employee, but if it does, it won't do it on free-speech grounds.

What about free software that reimplements something you have worked on by day? Should be quite clearly the pro-employer interpretation and not free speech if the problem space is the employer's core business, but maybe debatable if it's just domain independent supporting infrastructure (someone already mentioned JS tables, surely not core business if your employer is e.g. a bank)

I think that this must be a quite common situation: someone works on a solution to a "supporting" problem (js table or whatever), feels that the approach taken might be worthy of being a clean, reusable library. Maybe the thought of publishing isn't even there yet, it would just be nice to have the the API cleaned up for reuse as an in-house library. But there's no corporate time for that. Next stop: clean room supplementation from memory for open sourcing. Feels innocuous, but has trouble written all over it, good luck with "free speech". And it's tragic, because the employer would most likely be the sole beneficiary of the cleaned up reimplementation.

Without these clauses Employers don't have a chance at getting the IP.

With these clauses there is at least the opening of a lawsuit. Most are probably not in a position to fight these lawsuits whether or not they'd win in the long run.

> This engineer has filed over 30 successful patents over the past 2 years, and all of these inventions are used in our products.

From my limited experience, typical software patents are either ideas that might (if you're very optimistic) be useful in the future, or descriptions of an approach that everyone already kinda knows. The only purpose they serve is to create a legal weapon to use in patent lawsuits or counter lawsuits. None of the ones I've seen would improve performance or functionality of any product at the time they were written.

Writing 30 patents in two years that actually improved a product seems to me beyond hard. Invented by a single engineer rather than a team, doing it in their spare time, only adds to my degree of disbelief.

Has anyone seen examples of such productivity that you could share? Since all patents are public, an inventor's name would suffice.

My company just started promoting such a policy, and a guy on the business side mentioned filing a patent for some software I had written. Now the work is subtle and nontrivial, but in terms of its novelty, it might be worthwhile as a lightning talk at a meetup, and I can't see it as patentable. It's all known techniques. Another person at the company assures me that this is very patentable, but maybe I just don't get it.

The patent office has historically been willing to give unreasonable patents for computer science innovations. I know of an individual who has a large number of patents that essentially boil down to "Use convolutional neural networks to identify X in medical images". Each time his lab applies the same known techniques to a new domain of medical images, he has successfully filed a patent for it.

What’s worse is, to some extent you have to do this or else at some point, someone will come along and sue you for doing the obvious thing you’re doing.

I used to refuse to file patents. That attitude seems a bit petulant to me now after seeing the company receive some patent threats related to my area of work.

Just filing the dumb patent is cheaper than defending, esp for large organisations. I now file bullsh%t patents too :(

Wow, stuff like this actually makes me like countries that give a big F-U to medical patents and release drugs to general population for small fraction of original (and highly out of reach for poor people) cost

I don't think it's mentioned anywhere that they are software patents. Might be a hardware engineer.

To me they were described in a way that I assumed we were talking about process patents, which could be software, hardware, and even just plain ordering of how parts of the process are done.

They were searching the engineer's laptop for the code, so I assumed those were software patents. But maybe there's a decent amount of code even in a hardware patent?

If this were a salesperson and they reduced commissions, would it surprise anyone that motivations were also reduced?

If management thinks these patents are worth less, a reasonable position, then they should file fewer of them. Indeed the cost of patent prosecution is significantly greater than the engineer's patent compensation. Raise the filing bar; that'll save some money. But if they lower patent compensation, they have to understand that it will also lower motivation.

Indeed, if they lowered patent compensation they are explicitly signaling that it is of less value and importance. The fact that this engineer doesn’t want to contribute anymore lines up with that.

money will not fix this situation. if you breach trust once over compensation, you lose all goodwill from your staff. your talented staff will leave immediately. there's nothing to be done to fix it, full stop.

the literal second a company begins curtailing engineer benefits they transition from a forward moving company to a fungibility-fest maintenance mode enterprise

Well said. I started my dream job 1 year ago. 6 months ago we were purchased and our benefits were all cut. I've lost over 50% of my team, we can't hire new people. I still have very interesting engineering problems to solve, but I feel cheated out of what I signed up for.

Similar story here. Company was purchased recently, new health benefits are messing people up, and most of the staff lost anywhere from 20% to 60% of their compensation.

I am trying to move on, but I can not solve data structures/algorithms on white boards with people staring over my shoulder. :|

My interviewees wrote code by hand, but on a paper on a desk, seated opposite me. Surely you can ask for this less stressful alternative?

I would not necessarily describe it as stress. Just more of a complete break down of the mental process and over thinking of what I am doing.

Your dream job is no more. Your should leave, too.

I know, i've been casually looking. I'm just so determined to make a large salary leap on my next job and find somewhere I can stay for a few years (that's what I thought I had with the current job before things changed).

Because of this i'm taking my time looking because my resume only gets better by the day with what I do currently.

The best engineers are also going to have options. Cutting benefits is acting as a filter to remove your best staff...

I wish I knew was company this was so I could blacklist them from any future contact.

@OP, upper management fucked up majorly and if I were you I’d be looking to leave as well. Everything you’ve said makes them seem like complete assholes who said “fuck the culture” and opted for profits over people.

What should you do? Tell the guy in person that he should leave, take the patented material with him and don’t look back.

The company has had to have made more than 110k off his parents, and this is such an infuriating question to be asking.

An Engineer is not bound to produce squat for you outside of what you ask him to during his work hours.

I encourage most junior devs to keep their projects to themselves in fact. Weaponization of patents ethically demands it.

From reading about said company's treatment of this engineer in particular, they are simply reaping what they've sown. Marginalize your engineers, or try to catch them out with legal maneuvering (which is what most employment contracts now are intended as) when you first hire them to hedge your bets at being able to claim something down the line, and this is what you get.

Edward Demmings says one of the keys to Quality is to maintain and foster An environment in which the craftsman's pride in his work can flourish.

Blanket claims to IP and marginalized patents are not that.

> An Engineer is not bound to produce squat for you outside of what you ask him to during his work hours.

But there was already a presentation. A court favorable of the employer could easily regard that as an implicit promise to provide what was presented, off-hours or not.

Company removes incentives for a employee to do thing(s), and doesn't get thing(s) and is now surprised by result.

It's always hard to know but the way this is being described sounds like the person asking the engineer for this information has little to no relationship with this person. That can't be helping. They cut the incentive program that gave him extra money and insist he move to move on his career, they clearly don't belive what he says and I'm sure he has picked up on that. None of this seems like the way you treat a valuable person at the company.

Regardless of the legal situation, this is a pretty shabby way to treat an employee.

While the bonus was good, he contributed patents. How much did the company profit from those? Quite a bit more than you paid in bonus, I'll wager.

And now you've cut the bonus, but still expect (and seem to be trying to force) the employee to continue contributing in his spare time?


> IT has searched his OneDrive, laptop, etc., and we can't find a single shred of code/documentation on these ideas.

neural implants cant come too early.

>I've tried offering a one-off bonus for him to just anonymously leave a thumb drive with the data on my desk after hours, but he just claims he "doesn't know what I'm talking about".

the engineer is smart while the manager doesn't seem so if he really thought that the engineer would walk into that trap.

> and even an offer of $25,000.00 for the IP didn't work, which would have been according to the "old rules". I think he's worried that by agreeing to such a deal, he's opening himself up to legal liability (it would involve indirectly admitting he was being dicey/dishonest about "not knowing what I'm talking about")

Definitely a Fisher/Spassky level of managerial thinking. Only at this game the rooks aren't sacrificed, they are shafted.

Wait, so the engineer came up with an idea in their spare time, demo'd it to the bosses then decided that it wasn't worth it to follow up on the idea in their spare time but now they want to somehow force them to turn it over after apparently deleting all evidence of it?

I don't actually know what to think about this (and I'm a big fan of absurdity) but suspect there's some hidden moral to this story...

There's a whole legal theory behind what's discussed in the OP : patent rights get assigned to employer by employee under terms of their employment agreement, subject to whatever laws pertain under the relevant jurisdiction (e.g. California is probably different). The $1000 bonus thing has a legal purpose to beef up the employer's rights to the IP, since under law the rights accrue to the inventor not the employer. And on and on. So this manager is a clueless idiot who needs some schooling in the law and the various risks he is running in taking the action he's taken. Ianal, but...seriously..if you're an engineering manager you should know this stuff to some level.

Would a $0.01 bonus be sufficient to beef up employer's right to the IP?

"We offered X dollars for patents, the engineer accepted that price. We now want the patents for X-Y dollars, the engineer doesn't accept this price. I have no idea how to negotiate and I would like to strongarm him instead. Help me!"

I up-voted you but I suspect that the manager has little say over the aspects of the situation that would help retain the engineer.

Some bean counter has determined that they can save money by not paying for something they used to pay for - and its working. They are paying less (which is all the bean counter cares about). They fact that they are getting less or costing the company is not his problem.

Yeah, I suspect the OP is caught between a rock and a hard place. I know very little about the situation from what's given in the Stackexchange post, but this is how I imagine it;

The OP has had no say over this policy at all, and is actually pretty powerless overall. He/she has no ability to give out titles, perks, bonuses, promotions or anything really. Still the position of the OP entails being a link between senior management and the actual engineers, so the OP is the only one in management who actually sees this engineer's work ethic, creativity and problem solving. The few times this engineer has been in contact with senior management the engineer has pushed back their requests for him to just give up whatever work's been done, which doesn't work because the engineer barely knows who the f they are. So the senior management now asks the OP to fix it, but grants almost no authority to do anything.

The senior management would like this situation to end in a situation where they don't have to roll back whatever policies they implemented, or treat people in special ways just to get what they already believe is rightfully theirs, and if this doesn't go well they want to blame someone lower for the mess.

This company's "patent program" is everything that's wrong with the patent system. Patents are (well, were) intended to protect critical parts of work, not to be farmed for building up a war chest.

Not a lawyer. From past start-up legal experience... it depends on the state. In some/many states, an employer unilaterally changing compensation for a portion of an employment agreement, without asking employees to resign an updated contract, would render those portions of the agreement null and void.

Some states have employment laws against certain non-compete and [iirc] blanket IP assignment clauses. In those states, even if employees sign to those clauses, they are still void according to state law.

The standard employment contract in us tech is basically: if you do it on company time, or use company property, equipment, or anything paid for by the company it belongs to them - you would almost certainly be in breach of contract if you refused to disclose.

Now even if you didn’t use any company resources, most contracts provide at the very least the right for your company to use any IP you develop, even in your off time, even without any of their resources. Your contract in all likelihood would give them actual ownership of the IP.

You could choose not to tell them about this IP, and I believe you would be fine, as long as you never used or published it - even after termination of employment - because not being required to disclose the IP does not change ownership - it belongs to the company, even if the company does not know about it.

Source: going over job offers+contracts with a lawyer

I am not a lawyer... however From my personal experience I do not think that is accurate depending upon the state. For instance, blanket IP assignment clauses are not valid in CA and many other states.

Software is far too broad a field for an employer to claim ownership of all of your software code and inventions. and so not familiar with the totality of case law, but I think software copyright and IP claims over employee's free time activities have to be very specific.

Example for some states, such as CA: If your job is developing computer vision algorithms for self-driving cars... your employer can probably claim ownership over your out-of-work inventions for car computer vision stuff. But they probably could not claim ownership for computer vision algorithms you develop for detecting counterfeit money. They definitely would not own a video game you develop or telescope control software you write, etc. unless there are specific contract clauses cover software in these domains.

You can hash out the extent of IP claims [and non-compete concerns] with your employer. I would encourage folks to protect your creative freedom and limit the scope of your employers IP claims to specific technical domains. In many states, the law is already on your side but it is easier if the employment IP domain is specific.

> on company time, or use company property, equipment, or anything paid for by the company

Mine have also said "relating to the company's business" which I imagine (IANAL) can make a lot of programming projects difficult, and I guess might make a lot of non-programming hobbies difficult if you work for a BigCo -- creative media, "things on the internet" etc etc. And not a line you want to even walk close to IMO with companies of that size.

> "relating to the company's business"

The company I work for also has this. The company is a big entertainment conglomerate. I'm unclear what businesses the company is not in; but most of the things I do in my spare time include--songwriting, book publishing, blog writing--could classify as things the company also does.

My `exclusion` clause was over 1 page long and I spent quite a bit of money on a lawyer to put it together.

That doesn't work for large corporations: Imagine working for Sony -- they makes films, games, filming equipment, game consoles, cameras, flash memory, cellphones, financial services, ....

Where would you work if you had skills that led you to be working at Sony in the first place?

Getting legalistic about this would only lead to an even worse outcome than reducing compensation. Getting legalistic is from the beatings will continue until morale improves management school. Instead, management needs to understand that the engineer has a point.

> I think he's getting ready to switch jobs, and we need the technical information/code he used to create the demo.

This irks me, it's not explained or alluded to why this is needed, surely this should be wanted?

Already sold to customers down the chain, who sold it to theirs? If it's that kind of pants down situation I guess that the engineer in question will stay just long enough to watch the drama play out.

>>> Since employees write these in their spare time...


(Asking for legal advice on the Internet. Double oops).

There's a point in the application process where you need to affirm, under penalty of perjury, a bunch of legal stuff about the invention. I can see having second thoughts about (say) the prior art landscape, or having sincere doubts that the application teaches something patentable, and refusing to sign.

If the potential patents are actually valuable, the cheapest way for the company to realize them is to pay the engineer for his time. The company already sounds like a horrible place to work, and lawsuits against current or former employees are going to send an awesome message to the ranks. Engaging in a suit to force someone to patent an invention is going to get really interesting and expensive.

It's also possible that the engineer has been gaming the patent reward system, turning in inventions that are just reworked prior art, or that are not actually very valuable (too narrow or obscure to be interesting, or too broad and risky to use in legal action). 30 patents is a lot, relatively speaking -- perhaps the company realized that it was actually getting low-quality inventions and decided to adjust the compensation accordingly.

Yeah this manager guy is an asshole.

I think idiot would be the better top level designation. So : Idiot asshole.

i've struggled with these quite a bit over the years. an idiot often ends up being an asshole because they are just incapable of empathizing with other people's perspectives. maybe in this case they think they are just looking out for the companies interest and being extremely short sighted.

an asshole, who isn't an idiot, often uses the pretense of idiocy to obfuscate their actions...even worse - as a kind of trolling.

given that these behaviors are so often fused, I wonder if it even makes sense to try to tease out whether there is malicious intent.

I think inexperienced or naive might be better words. He clearly understands the issue, but feels totally not empowered to change anything.

At this stage, I'd propose the employee quit and then possibly deliver the work as a consultant for good dollars.

In a nutshell, “We want this engineer to continue to bring us value, we just don’t want to pay for it.”

When military clears buildings they leave a way for the enemy to exit ...

This is silly, and case in point why the California statute should be federal law.

My company pays peanuts for patents. Something like $50 plus a name on a plaque. I might have filed patents for $5000 a pop, but for $50 it's not even worth the effort.

The employer is horrific. Leave. Yesterday.

"Oh No! This innovation program is bringing too many good results! Better dial it down a little..."

Let's be real, the quality of patents generated in programs like this are very low. A good patent is worth more than 5k.

So the engineer knows his game theory instincts: offer me a price I will accept or no deal, no matter how much you increase your offer later on. In this case, it was particularly easy/insulting, because they already knew a reasonable price he would have accepted. That IP is gone.

>His employment agreement states that any and all intellectual property he generates while employed with us, even during weekends/free-time, is the property of the company.

Seriously. That cannot be worked in my country. This line alone indicates that this employer is evil.

Personally I’d start looking for another job because the upper management does not seem to understand who actually has valuable thoughts or the company is financially so constrained that they have to suffocate people who innovate. Either way, the persepctive is bleak. And im sure the engineer would do the same as soon as someone makes the right offer in terms of payment and location.

> His employment agreement states that any and all intellectual property he generates while employed with us, even during weekends/free-time, is the property of the company.

This is illegal and unenforceable in many places in the world including the whole EU and California (only stuff done using company resources or relating to company work). I'm surprised at the other comments here that seem to be totally ignorant of this.

One of the many benefits of being in California is that work that you do in your own free time with your own resources legally belongs to you. I’m not sure what would happen in the state this engineer is in on the other hand. Of course, they can’t force him to complete and deliver work he did in his own free time but I’m not sure whether he would be able to reuse it or file a patent himself.

Related: The Elves are Leaving Middle Earth- The Sodas are no Longer Free


Thank you for this, been looking for this article for a long time!


A bunch of things about this I've not seen discussed in detail, and they are important.

What we know:

1) The company changed the compensation model for patents, and now have lost contribution from one of their most prolific users of that model.

2) The manager is concerned that the employee is going to leave. And then the IP will be effectively lost to the employer.

3) Based upon #2, they have engaged a significant hunt for information, looking through his data storage, his laptop, etc. At likely fairly significant expenditure of time/effort/personnel who should be engaged in other tasks.

That is, the company is paying real money for the opportunity cost associated with their screwing up their policy. They are paying time and materials, resources, consultants, etc. to try to find something that is not likely findable.

They are apparently ok with this use of capital.

They are apparently less ok with paying what their engineer considered a fair market compensation for their effort. At some point, possibly already, they will have spent more money on the search and recovery effort than they would have paid the engineer.

4) Somehow the manager is of the opinion that the employee does not want to "admit" that they are "lying".

What we don't know:

1) The value of the previously patented work. You can get a glimmer of the thought processes by noting that the manager focused on the volume and not the quality of the work, by counting. You can get a sense of disbelief in high quality from the comments here.

So we don't know if this senior engineer was putting out good product, figured out a way to game a broken system and no longer wishes to play.

I am going to assume the senior engineer put out a good product and patent set. Such that the company was willing to prosecute patent filings, and saw value in them. So much so, that when they broke their standing rate on compensation for voluntary work, they decided to spend real capital pursuing this voluntary work.

2) whether or not this engineer is really looking for a new job. Well, put another way, whether or not they were looking for a new job ... yet.

Likely they'll catch on from StackExchange, see their manager post, realize that they need to git while the gitting is good.

3) whether or not this manager has communicated this to senior management, whether or not this person has decision or negotiation authority to solve this. Chances are, they do within specific boundaries.

So ...

A few obvious thoughts:

1) the company policy change is idiotic. Their pursuit of IP across the systems suggests that they realize that they messed up something fierce.

2) By the managers own admission, they badly broke trust with the employee, not only by reducing potential compensation, but then further by rooting through the employee's systems.

Yes, they have a right to do this. They are likely not breaking any laws.

But they broke trust in (at least 2) major ways.

3) If the IP is potentially really valuable to the company, as in material to their bottom line as a whole, or in a competitive stance, chances are the employee is very well aware of this. And they know that the old compensation model, the one they were using, wouldn't be of sufficient value to themselves for the value it would bring the company.

Which means that this is still a negotiation, and no one has seemingly asked the basic question of "what would it take for you to recall and rediscover this work?"

Given the breach of trust, this negotiation tactic may not work. But given that the employee appears to be a fairly smart cookie, they will likely play this to maximize their benefit.

4) The manager seems unable or unwilling to come to terms with changes they need to make in order to get this guy the comp he wants. This is a solvable problem with the right management, and the right managerial attitude. If you can't promote him because your rules don't allow this, and you think he is a valuable team member, and a promotion would help shake up his memory ... hey, this is solvable. It is left as an exercise for the student, but hint, if the rules are problematic ...

It seems to me that their are a number of potential solutions to this, none of which require people to admit to lying, or allowing them to be accused of lying.

The company simply has to decide how important this IP is to them, to decide what changes they should make. At minimum, this manager sounds like they are not a keeper.

You seem to assume that the company/management would act rationally. I'm going to guess that you are an engineer?

I'm reminded of the Theranos scandal. If Holmes had spent half the money on generous severace packages as she spent on lawyers and private investigators, probably Theranos would have quietly faded into a generic lab automation / contract medical testing company instead of imploding.

I’m reminded of the quip, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”

The company shouldn't encourage filing software patents.

How is this IP stuff not considered a massive violation of privacy?

Anyone know how a patent team might determine the value of a patent?

Depends on the patent and the application. Could be stupid simple but save a company 0.01$ per “item” and when you make millions of “item” a year that adds up. So it’s entirely based on how the patent can be applied.

Where I work, the inventor(s) get a cut of any royalties

Hey, OP, can you tell us the name of the company that you and your very productive and forgetful engineer work at? Just want to make sure I don't accidentally start working there!

This should be expected. You screwed the guy, you got screwed in return. Be happy that he has not yet left and offer him $300k - $400k as a bonus if that work is so important.

> IT has searched his OneDrive, laptop, etc., and we can't find a single shred of code/documentation on these ideas.

Ahahah. Is anyone surprised that a smart engineer knows what he is doing?


It sounds like you have a good point in there somewhere, but it's lost when you cross into personal attack, especially when it takes the form of an aggressive rant. That's probably why your comment was downvoted and flagged.

Could you please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and stick to the guidelines, even when you feel somebody did something egregious?

Edit: it looks like you've broken the site guidelines quite a bit and we even had to warn you about this recently. Continuing in that vein is going to get you banned here, so please fix this.

Then the company shouldn't mind not getting the patents. After all, they really aren't worth that much right? Everyone's happy, well everyone but this manager.


Wow. An engineer that brings innovation is now to blame. The work is something that more or less everyone can do, innovation? Not for everyone. How many patents does an engineer release on average?

It's evident that the company doesn't give a damn about innovation any longer. It starts with "hey we need great people with great ideas" then it degrades to "we need people". What do companies like this really expect? Einstein? Edison? Sometimes innovation comes in multiple steps. Look at the list of most prolific innovators, they thought about stuff that we would consider useless at least. Still, the patents are there. This company, specifically, doesn't seem to value all ideas. They should simply stop this bogus program.

Look at IBM, it's the company with the highest amount of patents in the US (AFAIK). Do they all count? Are they all comparable to the invention of the telephone? How many other inventions were needed before that? This engineer released a lot of patents, and it seems that now, yes after 30 ideas, he had a very valuable one - which means for the company maybe some million dollars.

Why so late??? That's how progress works.

Clearly not given this engineers contract.

I doubt that he is getting above-market pay. 7 years for a decent bonus to kick in is not what the market does; I got a good bonus my first year at Google and the first year at the startup I quit Google to join. That's the norm. Being relocated to a different part of the country to accept a promotion is also not normal. At any organization interested in retaining engineers, you demonstrate that you're working at the "next level" and get the simple pay increase that that is worth.

I would expect someone with the title "senior engineer" to be getting in the ballpark of $300,000 total compensation. Otherwise, their version of "senior" means something different than what the market leaders call it. If this guy is getting $400,000 a year with the patent bonuses... it's probably money well spent. With the right patents, you can extort Samsung for a few billion here, Apple for a few billion there. $110,000 is pocket change. Just pay the guy that and make it unappealing to leave for Google and get an endless stream of patents that you can have in your back pocket for defense, at the very least.

>I would expect someone with the title "senior engineer" to be getting in the ballpark of $300,000 total compensation.

Nonsense. https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/senior-software-engineer-...

Google is the 1% of payouts. Look on indeed, or any objective source for average senior engineer salaries and you're talking $150 or so in a city.

All those sites I have looked at severely underestimates pay, or maybe only people who are getting shafted and are unhappy contribute data to them. Just look at Google, Apple, and Microsoft on the page you linked. I guarantee you there is no equivalent of a senior developer at any of those companies making <100k in the US.

Just to put some perspective in this comment. It means that you'd also have to move to SF or Silicon Valley and it might surprise you that many people dont wan't to live there. The average salary of a senior engineer is way less. Also, the average company doesn't offer RSUs which is where your numbers might come from.

Your numbers don't apply. If those patents were really that valuable (they generally aren't) and the company had the money to pay "senior engineers" 300k then they wouldn't be cutting the compensation like that to save costs. As quoted, he patent/code in question is worth a measly 25,000$ to the company. It's a joke. Nobody in this whole story is a big deal. There's no billion dollar patents here, for the likes of Google or Samsung to fight over.

The searches they did to recover it suggest it is worth a lot of money. You don;t do all that for a few thousands savings.

When I worked at GM they gave out bonus checks to ideas that saved they money. I believe it was 10% of what they saved in a year.

An idiot bean-counter probably complain about giving an assembly line worker a check for $100,000 despite the fact it not only saved $1,000,000 GM that year, but every year after year as long as the idea is used.

It says in the link that the company had the discretion to pay between $300 and $5000 per patent, and they paid him $110000 for 30 patents ($3667 average), which means that the patents he was generating were not useless.

And the fact that they describe him as a senior engineer and directly describe the IP they’re after as valuable to the company.

What you are saying sounds plausible, but one thing that leaves a doubt in my mind is the bit where management is worried they have not been able to capture the latest work. If prior work was fully fluff, why would they be anxious to capitalize on the new work?

It's not uncommon to have prolific inventors in companies like IBM or so. Maybe the company realised that this person's patents were not worth enough, however, they might turn valuable in a few years, who knows, through some acquisitions, etc.

The sad thing about these situations is that the inventor is not owning the patent, the company screwed the engineer, and this is now on his/her own trying to fight legal battles.

In my opinion, the best thing to do in such situations is to leave your job and make a startup. If this guy is able to fill 30 patents he has probably some good ideas.

> Have none of you really worked at a company that introduced an overly ambitious rewards program and had to dial it back?

Yes, and universally it resulted in a mass exodus of good talent, I have experienced it 2 times in my career, every time most of the good talent was gone at other employers with in a year

>He was gaming the system to get above market pay.

lol, I always love when people believe that using a program exactly as it was designed is a "loop hole" or "gaming the system"..

No he was not gaming the system

>If you think someone came up with 30 truly novel and useful software patents in 2 years you might not have read enough software patents.

I am opposed to all software patents, however that does not change anything. The fact is to the company and the current legal climate around patents I can assure you each of those patents are worth more than the $$$ they where paying out.

>Has he worked in software before? Clearly he's never been in a management/leadership position where he actually has to balance the concerns of the company with his own ego.

Clearly you one of the bad managers that believe they are putting company concerns above all else and ends up hurting company due to their short sighted policies.

I bet you would be the type of manager that would outsource an entire dept, pat yourself on the back for the cost savings, and then jump ship as the company plummets of the cliff you created

> The fact is to the company and the current legal climate around patents I can assure you each of those patents are worth more than the $$$ they where paying out.

That's utter nonsense. Most patents are absolutely worthless. Even the odd patent that you might find, where you can litigate still requires a risky and costly litigation process.

It's more likely that the company paid too much money to generate too few valuable patents, which is why they scaled back the program. Now that they did find one that is somewhat valuable to them, they want it and they tasked this poor middle manager to get it. But they're also not willing to spend more than 25,000$ on it. So how can this patent be that valuable? It just isn't.

Couple things

1. I assume that processes or advancements related to the patent actually do improve the business function or process, that alone probably makes the pay out worth it. I know a few companies that have process improvement programs where employees can earn more than the person in this story if they successfully submit an idea that does something to improve the companies process, reduce costs, etc. has nothing to do with patents

2. The value of software patents today is NOT to litigate against other companies, companies fill out their software and other IP today to protect themselves FROM litigation, if a company finds themselves on the wrong end of a litigation their own patent portfolio is ammo both offensively (counter-suite) and defensively

Again, if the patent is so worthless, why spend so much effort to get it back?

Sure the company realized that the patents are not really worth as much as they were originally paying. So developer decides not to bother which makes sense.

I don't think it is narcissistic but I do think the developer has to be careful in how she plays her cards.

Why are you referring to the male developer as "she"?

Not everybody's first language is English, mistakes are made. We all understood what the author meant.

Hard to agree with you. I don't think "understanding what the author meant" is remotely relevant, and if this is a mistake, I am actually very curious how such a mistake could be made.

Many people find it extremely insulting to be referred to with the wrong gender, there are famous cases discussed in HN which led to developers losing their position within projects.

Perhaps I missed it, but I didn't notice anything in the article that said they were software patents.

30 accepted patents is impressive regardless of cashflow for them. Perhaps put him on the legal team editing patents? Leverage what he loves.

submitted vs. accepted is a long and twisty path ... if were are talking 2 years here most or all of them will not have been reviewed yet.

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