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SubjectRe: Contributing to the kernel while being employed
Alan Cox wrote:
> On Mer, 2003-07-30 at 15:13, Anuradha Ratnaweera wrote:
> > Before working for a commercial organization, one usually has to sign a
> > contract which makes all the work done during the period of employment
> > (including innovations, "hobby" coding done during "after hours")
> > copyrighted by the employer. This introduces various problems when one
> > wishes to do open source development, especially as a hobby.
>
> I've always made sure I had paperwork from my employer permitting it,
> and I've never had any problems getting that.

If only all stories were so pleasant. I have never had success
getting the paperwork I asked for, even when the companies were
clearly keen for me to be there, and even when they supported the idea
of free software.

One told me it was better to not rock the boat, to let stuff out
quietly, than to raise the issue. If I raised the issue, someone
would question it and that would be worse than just not saying
anything.

I have never felt easy with official, verbal "don't ask don't tell"
arrangements, because some company executives like to deny what they
previously agreed verbally - or they may move on themselves.

I've been told at a couple of places that I can contribute to the
community, provided I agree beforehand each and every contribution
with the company - whereas I've wanted a clear understanding
(preferably written) of what is and what isn't in the sphere of interest.

At one employer, I wrote a note stating what I thought was their area
of business, and they wrote one to me stating that while basket
weaving, for example, was clearly outside their business, _any_ area
of computer science was potentially a business interest to them. They
were keen to support the community, but it had to be a case of their
veto of my works, rather than their interests being limited to a
certain field.

This was difficult for me, since computer science is pretty much my
major hobby, my works in that field will outlive any employment I do,
and obviously there are conflicts of interest in that arrangement.

In particular, it meant I could never write my best, most profound
ideas for them to potentially veto. They didn't pay enough to own
those (I'm not sure anyone pays enough).

I found it difficult in practice. Most of what I produce at home is
not in the form of well-defined projects with clear releases, but
rather consists of thousands of small patches and experiments. Most
of which I don't want to release, but which I may use years later in a
project. And it made, for example, coding a small program and posting
it to linux-kernel too cumbersome - so on some occasions I have coded
stuff at home, posted test results, but been too unfortable to post
the code.

> Obviously if you are employed to hack OS internals don't be suprised if
> the employer says "no", most however seem reasonable or will agree they
> have no problem with contributions that don't relate to their business
> area. (So they dont see you as taking things you learned through your
> employment and 'leaking' knowledge to the outside world.

That's a good answer.

As a corollary from my own experience, if something really interests
you and you want to develop and share it over many years (and many
employments), you may be better off choosing _not_ to work in that
field precisely to avoid any conflicts of interest - unless you find
an employer who is able to commit to your freedom to work with your
interest in future, e.g. by employing you to actually work on and
release software under a suitably free license.

I am personally much happier having decided to work in that way. I am
able to give 100% of myself to the work without reservation, now,
which is better for all concerned and also very satisfying.

-- Jamie
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