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Home  > Article

Who Owns Your Ideas?

By John R. Platt

Engineers never seem to stop thinking. Their minds keep coming up with new ideas, and those new ideas have a tendency to become new technologies or processes.

But who owns those ideas? Sure, they're yours to start. You did the hard work to come up with an idea and maybe even put it through its paces. But when you work for a company or organization, your ideas might very well end up belonging to your bosses, whether you intend for them to or not.

Should you protect your best ideas, and keep them to yourself? Or should you let your company help you develop them as far as they need to go?

1. Know What Your Company Expects Of You

Depending on your company's policies or your specific employment agreement, anything you do during work hours probably belongs to your employer. That includes things you think might not apply, such as your personal emails, your lunch-hour-written blog, your doodles, and yes, your ideas. (Sure, they might not want your blog, but technically, if it's done on work time, they could enforce ownership if they wanted.)

Your company might also have rules prohibiting "moonlighting" or working on your own projects in the evening -- especially if they are in the same field as your day job. You don't want to be competing with your main source of employment, after all.

Beyond that, if it's your job to come up with new ideas, that's what your company expects from you. So don't hold back. Your creativity is one of the factors that got you your job in the first place.

2. Why Your Company Can Do Best By Your Idea

Let's face it, most new technology ideas need funding in order to be properly developed. Equipment is expensive, as are labs, testing facilities, expert advice, patent filing, legal consults, marketing plans and a whole lot of other factors that go into creating a successful new product.

Working with a company or other large institution (such as a university or non-profit lab) also brings you a team of co-workers and their expertise, which can be invaluable in developing a new technology.

A large organization has the budget necessary to bring all of these factors together, and to take a good technology idea to the level of commercialization. Since the company is putting up the risk, they probably deserve the greater percentage of the profits.

But hey, if you come up with one good idea, chances are higher that your company will give you the funding necessary to bring your next idea to fruition. And maybe increase your own salary at the same time.

3. Why You Can Do Best By Your Idea

Sometimes, the best people to shepherd an idea aren't from a large corporation. Look at the origins of Microsoft, Apple, and other tech successes. Individuals or small groups working in garages took the risk that big companies wouldn't or couldn't and created successful products (and their own companies) as a result.

Not every idea is a corporate idea. Some ideas are too ground-breaking, too out there, or too small, or just too personal. Developing an idea like this might take sacrifice, or hard work to find funding, but they can also succeed in ways that won't work in any other situation.

So keep that in mind as your mind keeps coming up with new ideas. Every idea needs fertile ground in which to grow, and it's up to you to plant it in the right environment to allow it to succeed.

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