In the modern employment context, there are plenty of on-boarding documents, including a handbook, that the employee may be asked to sign as part of getting hired. Lurking in these pages of seemingly innocuous workplace policies may be critical obligations and restrictions that significantly restrict the employee’s rights. For example, non-compete and non-solicitation clauses are becoming more and more common in all industries. Also, there may be another Trojan Horse to watch for, especially in high-tech industries – the so-called “concepts and inventions assignment clause.” This clause essentially assigns all of the employee’s inventions, innovations, and discoveries that they make or create while working for the employer to the employer. And even in the absence of such a clause, the employer may claim rights as work-for-hire, or have limited rights under the “shop right doctrine.”
A “concepts and inventions clause” is a contractual obligation that is becoming increasingly standard in employment documents. It can be stand-alone, part of an employment contract, or even hidden in an employee handbook or manual. The clause gives the employer automatic and exclusive rights to inventions, conceptualizations, and other ideas created during the employer-employee relationship. The idea is that since the employer is paying the employee to dedicate 100% of his or her time to the business, and the employer is also providing the tools, space, and other means for the employee to work, the employer owns all of the fruits of the employee’s labor. The scope and breadth of the contract is up to the parties. However, some states (most notably California), limit the scope of such agreements by law. In those states, the agreement may not cover independent inventions – meaning inventions that are created on the employee’s own time without using any of the employer’s resources. For example, if an employee is a software designer, but goes home and creates a new type of mechanical circular saw in her garage during evening hours. Even if there is a general assignment clause, it likely would not be enforceable. Michigan does not have a law limiting the scope of the assignment clause/contract, which means that a Michigan employer could potentially claim rights to the new saw design, even if the invention has nothing to do with the employer.
In a high-tech context, a “concepts and inventions clause” may also list express exclusions. If Company A is hiring an inventor, the inventor would list all of the prior inventions that Company A has no rights to and the inventor retains. At the same time, the list benefits Company A because the inventor cannot later claim rights to an invention that is not on the list. Additionally, the clause (whether it is stand-alone or part of a broader employment agreement) often contains an integration clause, which prevents parties from claiming they had a side-deal or different understanding. And, there are “teeth” to provide that in case of a litigated dispute, the losing party would pay the prevailing party’s attorney fees, thereby discouraging lawsuits over ownership of an invention.
A similar situation occurs when an employer hires an employee for a specific purpose – that is to create a work-for-hire. Even without a contractual assignment clause, the employer will own the rights to any resulting invention where it is the outcome of the specific employment relationship. For example, Company A hires an engineer to invent a new chassis platform to use across Company A’s pickup truck line. The work results in a patentable invention and Company A owns 100% of the rights to the chassis. Even if the inventor did some of the work on his or her own time or otherwise made out-of-work contributions to the project, it would be considered a “work-for-hire” where the employer – or the “hirer” – owns all rights to the resulting innovation. The owner Company A is then free to license, sell, or otherwise assign the patent rights, and keep all of the profit, without providing the inventor with any additional compensation.
What about the situation where there is no “concepts and inventions clause” and there is no specific “work-for-hire” arrangement? Does the inventor always own 100% of the rights to his or her invention, even if created on company time? No, because of something called the “shop right doctrine.” The doctrine is a common-law concept (meaning it is a principle created by the courts, as opposed to the legislature). In general, the doctrine allows the employer to continue using the invention, but precludes the assignment or licensing of the invention to third-parties. In other words, the employer gets a royalty-free limited license to use the invention, but cannot sell it. The doctrine also requires that the invention be created using an employer’s resources, such as a laboratory, computer, or analytical equipment. The shop right doctrine is a defense to patent infringement that the employer can rely on if sued by the inventor – it is not an affirmative or assignable right.
What does this mean for employers and employees? If you are hiring or being hired, and anticipate the relationship may produce a valuable invention, concept, or other innovation, you should consult with an attorney to ensure your rights are protected. After-the-fact litigation is not only costly, but incredibly uncertain in outcome, and should be avoided as much as possible. As an employer, you want to make sure to have solid and well-defined assignment clauses for your employees to sign. And, because at least 9 states have statutory limitations on the scope of the assignment agreement, it is best practice to draft any assignment to be enforceable across the entire United States. As an employee, you need to make sure you are not inadvertently signing away more rights than you intend to, and are fully aware of your respective rights and obligations.
On a final note, these concepts (as well as other intellectual property concerns) also apply in the university context. Professors and graduate students are constantly innovating and creating, but whether they or the university own the final outcome may be something that they have not considered. In a famous example, Larry Page (one of the founders of Google), is listed as an inventor on one of the key patents that served as the foundation for Google. However, Stanford University owns the patent because Larry Page was a Ph. D. student there at the time of the invention. Consequently, Google had to license the patent from Stanford University for a hefty nine-figure sum. So while a university may not claim rights to inventions made by students as a matter of policy, they will likely claim rights to inventions made by employees. A graduate student or a post-doc is like a professor, in the sense that they are often employees of the university. Your specific institution likely has a tech transfer department, as well as its own policies and regulations. Again, an experienced attorney can help you protect yourself and stay informed of your rights and obligations.
Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.
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