Does the corporation you work for own all the thoughts inside of your head, even if you never write them down?
According to the state of Texas the answer is, maybe it does.
In 1997, DSC Communications Corp., an information technology company purchased soon thereafter by Alcatel USA, fired one of it's longtime employees, Evan Brown, and sued him for failing to disclose an idea Brown had for a process for converting machine code into the C programming language more efficiently, an idea the company claimed it owned the exclusive rights to under an "inventions" clause in a contract Brown had signed 10 years prior.
After 5 1/2 years of litigation, Judge Curt B. Henderson of Collin County, Texas' 219th District Court ruled in favor of Alcatel, and Brown was obliged to fully disclose the idea to Alcatel and only Alcatel, and to repay in full Alcatel's legal fees of more than $330,000, which according to Brown forced him to sell his house and other assets.
During the court case, Brown argued that since his idea had never been committed to paper or physically manifested in any way, there were no grounds for the company to claim ownership of his very thoughts, and he drew comparisons to the fact that an invention cannot be copyrighted or patented until it is transferred from an idea onto paper.
Brown asserted that his idea had been developed on his own time pointed out that it had nothing to do with the projects he was working on at DSC. He further asserted that he began developing the idea in 1975, long before DSC hired him in 1987, that he had already worked out 80 percent of the process before his DSC employment began, and that he had worked out the final 20 percent of his solution while on vacation in March of 1996.
Lawyers for DSC/Alcatel, however, counter-argued that coming up with good ideas is part of what companies pay their employees to do, that it is impossible for a court to determine whether an employee really came up with his idea while on vacation or while at work, and that if the idea had been jotted on a piece of paper and placed in a safe there would have been no question that the court would have ordered it turned over to the company, so just because it was only in the employees head did not make it any less the company's property.
Brown's defeat in the original lawsuit and later appeals provoked widespread outrage and sympathy for his cause among the general public. People wondered, how was it possible for a Texas court to have ruled that the corporation you work for can have exclusive ownership of everything in your brain, even ideas you conceive of while not at work?
However, a closer look at the particulars of Brown's case suggests that the court's decision is not exactly about to usher in an age in which corporations own all of our thoughts.
Brown's main defense rested on the fact that he had begun conceiving his idea before the period of 10 years in which he worked for DSC, a claim which was questionable and in any case, impossible to prove. Alcatel's lawyers conceded that if Brown had been able to produce any evidence that his idea was as old as he claimed, even something as simple as an "idea log" that many inventors keep for legal purposes, they would not have had a case.
Similarly, if Brown had first left his company and then pursued his idea, even if he had almost certainly had conceived of it while still with his former employer, a lawsuit would have been extremely unlikely. What made Brown's case unusual is that while still under employment at DSC, he went to his bosses and revealed the existence of his idea, and tried to get them to sign an agreement whereby he would receive a cut of any profits the company made from his idea, above and beyond his normal compensation.
It was only after the company refused to sign such an agreement and demanded Brown simply divulge his idea by invoking the "inventions" clause of his contract, that Brown refused to reveal his idea and was then fired and sued by the company. This sequence of events, and especially the fact that Brown explicitly asked his bosses to waive the "inventions" clause of his original contract, undermined his credibility and suggested that he may have been simply trying to find a way to profit from his idea.
Moreover, the court's ruling did not have anywhere near as vast an implication that all corporations own all the ideas of all of their employees. It simply ruled that the inventions clause Brown had agreed to in his contract was enforcible. There are many kinds of inventions clauses, and had Brown insisted on more precise language, he would have been fine, but in fact the clause in his contract stipulated "no exclusions."
In the final analysis, corporations, particularly software and IT companies such as the one Brown was working for, rely on intellectual property to survive, and the way they acquire this intellectual property is by paying good salaries to talented people to invent it. If every time an employee had an especially good idea they could force their company to pay them more, even if they had signed an agreement saying their inventions would belong to the company, these sorts of companies would not be able to function.
Of course, in reality people have all sorts of good ideas on the job, which they may not wish to share with their current employer so that they can profit from the idea themselves at a later date. This kind of thing happens all the time, and yet nobody gets sued. But the way to go about this is to simply keep one's thoughts to oneself until one has been able to leave one's company, and only then start a new company or sell the information to the highest bidder.
In retrospect, it was probably not a very good idea for Evan Brown to reveal the existence of his idea to his current employer and then try to blackmail them into cutting him in on company profits by withholding the idea.
The Register. "Alcatel owns US employee's thoughts." http://www.theregister.co.uk/2002/08/12/alcatel_owns_us_employees_thoughts/
Law.com. "Idea in Former Employee's Head Belongs to Alcatel." http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1028906396630
Brown, Evan. "Who Owns Evan Brown's Brain?" http://www.unixguru.com/index.html