I read a post in Raymond Chen's blog, where he says:

This blogging thing is just a side activity I do in my personal free time.

To which someone replies:

That's why I don't understand why MS owns the copyright. They don't pay you to blog, they don't pay you to attend conferences, and they get the copyright to your articles. Bee-zarre.

And Raymond replies back:

Microsoft owns the rights to any computer-related stuff I produce, regardless of whether it is included in my official job duties or not. Come up with an idea for a new feature? Microsoft doesn't have to pay me royalties, even though coming up with features is not part of my job.

Since the Stackoverflow terms require you to license your contributions under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike:

Does this mean that it's possible that, unless your employer agrees, you are not allowed to contribute to StackOverflow on your own free time?

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    If thats at any place I work for, I think I would need to start looking somewhere else – TheLQ Aug 22 '10 at 17:58
  • @Lord: I agree, unless they pay me amazing amounts of money that's pure BS. – Josh K Aug 22 '10 at 18:00
  • Interesting question. It stands to reason, though, that maybe, Raymond Chen does make amazing amounts of money and is a special case. I find it hard to imagine something like this can be found in your run-off-the-mill employment contract. – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Aug 22 '10 at 18:06
  • @Pekka: I think most german contracts are a bit fairer for the employees and its more common elsewhere. – Georg Fritzsche Aug 22 '10 at 18:45
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    The last two employee contracts I had to sign had that clause. Clearly designed to avoid another economic disaster like Silicon Valley. It would be great if a professional organization like ACM or IEEE would put this to the test. Maybe some day... – Uphill Luge Aug 22 '10 at 18:51
  • @Georg true, but as far as I know, such a broad swipe is not common in the anglo-saxon world, either. Plus, every Microsoft and Google employee active on SO would have to check their out-of-work activity with their employer - hard to imagine, isn't it? – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Aug 22 '10 at 18:51
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    @Hans The question, if I get it right, is whether anything computer-related people produce in their own time is still property of the employer. Is that really a standard clause? How can that be legal? – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Aug 22 '10 at 18:53
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    @Pekka, I'm not an expert on contract law. But you can put whatever the hell you want in one in the US unless it violates federal law. It doesn't really become binding until it is put to the test in front of a judge. You're automatically at a disadvantage because you agreed to it in writing. And because you probably don't have enough money to afford legal counsel. But if the judge agrees the clause is ridiculous then it is out of the window. But yes, ownership of your own brain in the US is tenuous. There are also specific exclusions in copyright law for software engineers. – Uphill Luge Aug 22 '10 at 19:07
  • I should mention that some states have explicit laws to exclude some typical employee contract abuses. There are several that put restrictions on non-compete clauses. That's about it though. – Uphill Luge Aug 22 '10 at 19:14
  • @Hans interesting. I was questioning the legality because it limits what you can do in your own unpaid time, which feels wrong to me. It goes so much further than the ordinary non-compete clause. The threshold for when a clause is viewed as ridiculous - the german legal term for that, interestingly, is "Sittenwidrig", which translates to "indecent", "immoral" - is certainly lower in Europe than it is in the US. Not necessarily a good thing in my opinion. It is a major obstacle to many flexible working arrangements - which employers will decline because they fear legal exposure. But I digress. – Pekka supports GoFundMonica Aug 22 '10 at 19:16
  • @Hans @Pekka: In the US, contract and employment law is primarily a matter of state law subject to a few specific federal preemptions. Contract provisions are voided as violative of state law and/or "public policy" all the time. Provisions like the ones at issue here are allowed in many states, but much harder to enforce in others, and virtually impossible in California. And I don't know what "economic disaster" in Silicon Valley you speak of, Hans, unless you think this caused the dot-com bust, which it most certainly did not. – Nicholas Knight Aug 22 '10 at 22:43
  • @Nicholas: it was a joke, of course. – Uphill Luge Aug 23 '10 at 6:32
  • @pekka The other side of the issue is that there were incidents where emplyoees would create copy-cat products "in their own time" that were 'different enough', but it was essentially IP theft. Most companies aren't that active about attacking their employees for coding in their spare time, because it has a direct company benefit. But the option is there just to protect themselves from the situation I described earlier. – devinb Aug 23 '10 at 12:28

Does this mean that it's possible that, unless your employer agrees, you are not allowed to contribute to StackOverflow on your own free time?

I am not a lawyer. Your work contract states what you are allowed to disclose to the public, what information you produce is owned by you and what is owned by the company.

For example, your employer could have stated in your contract: "during your employments at ACME, you are not allowed to post anything on Stack Overflow".

Many companies claim invention rights to all the work you produce, even off hours.

I would argue there is very little invention work in answering questions on SO. If I had any doubts about whether I am allowed or not to contribute SO on my free times I would ask my boss explicitly if I am allowed to do so (if he has no answer I would push this up until I got one)


To answer your base question: "Does this mean that it's possible that, unless your employer agrees, you are not allowed to contribute to StackOverflow on your own free time?"

Yes, in certain cases it is possible, based on the example you provided. This guy has made it perfectly clear that he cannot.

There are plenty of people on here who work for large companies and provide regular questions and they are not worried.

If there is something in your contract which makes you unsure then ask a legal expert.

If there is nothing in your contract and you are still unsure then ask a legal expert because a condition of you posting on any of these sites is that your contributions will be licensed under cc-wiki.

  • I don't think your movie analogy holds. First, I believe script writers (which would be the most similar thing) own the copyright of their scripts and receive a (small) royalty for each DVD copy sold, etc. Second, I'm not talking about being prevented to talk about a company product (that could be prohibited through a NDA/trade secrets). I'm talking about being unable to do anything programming related without the employer owning the copyright (and since the copyright is not yours, you cannot license the work to stackoverflow under cc-wiki with attribution). – Artefacto Aug 23 '10 at 0:06

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