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When your ideas are your company's property

Published on Apr 15, 2014 1:25 PM
A man walks past the neon sign in front of the "We Work" co-operative co-working space on March 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

The big story in Silicon Valley these days is a class-action lawsuit alleging that several major technology companies, including Google and Apple, agreed not to try to hire away one another's employees - thereby hindering workers from seeking out better-paying jobs.

But do-not-hire agreements are not the only way corporations are taking control of their employees' intellectual capital. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the individual inventor is a hero in our popular imagination. But increasingly it is corporations, not people, who own inventions.

This ownership runs deeper than inventions and artistic works, extending to skills, ideas and professional ties - tacit knowledge and social relations that cannot be subject to patent or copyright under the traditional scope of intellectual property, but which corporations lay claim to at increasing rates through employment agreements.

In these agreements, companies demand that employees - from those in low-level manufacturing positions to design engineers and creative workers - sign away all their innovations, and the knowledge they will acquire during the course of employment, and refrain from competing with their employer post-employment, whether that means taking a new job with a competitor or starting their own company.

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