Waking up one day, you have a flash of insight. You know your idea will take off—you have come up with the next Facebook or YouTube.
In the meantime, you help out with an open source project that allows people to automate their home stereos. You were recently made a core developer on the project, and it is just starting to get to the point where you know it will be successful.
Wait...you have a job?
You may already be in trouble.
I know it sounds a little far-fetched that simply thinking of an idea or participating in an open source project while employed can get you into trouble. It almost sounds like the setup for a bad legal thriller. If merely thinking of an idea or sending in a patch could get you into trouble, people would be engaged in lawsuits all the time.
The more nuanced answer, which we will discuss further, is that it really depends on the specifics of what you do and the agreements you have already made with your employer. However, that doesn’t mean that lawsuits over basic ideas don’t happen.
In 1994, Evan Brown approached his employer, DSC Communications, with a big idea: he had figured out an efficient way to decompile legacy binary code into high-level source code. DSC was initially interested, but negotiations between Brown and DSC soon broke down. Afraid that Brown would sell the idea to a competitor, DSC sued.
At the center of the case was DSC’s proprietary information agreement (PIA). ...