During the years, I have seen many Start-Up team members lacking the necessary legal knowledge to make effective decisions about what is wrong and what is not wrong to do when working in that field. Many company owners have a too dark and or too light perception regarding the legal requirements when building a new technology-based company. At the same time even more significant number of company owners directly ignore some laws or try bending them to their benefit. As always, the truth is in the middle, and reality is more grayish.
But let’s start with a simple example regarding copyright laws. I am amazed how many people in technology still neglect them and even have no idea how they work. So let’s give them a ride. In their essence, these laws state the following:
- Ideas: Ideas are free from copyright. However, here come two questions regarding that statement. First – how do we distinguish an idea from something else? We usually use already established design patterns and algorithms in technology and try to model our ideas using these tools. So, in short, the standard approach of making your concept alive is to use something someone has already invented, but it is not under copyright. Second – having in mind the last sentence, where is the line between an idea and something which must be under copyright? Should we claim the collection of algorithms and design patterns needed for one idea’s implementation to be under copyright?
- Patents: For anyone reading patent papers, patents describe the design patterns and logic implementing the idea defended by the patent. At the same time, we could ask the following questions: What happens if we change one of the boxes used in the patent and implement it another way, but not the one described in the patent? Will this invalidate the patent? Will this be enough legally to claim that our Start-Up does not use the patent?
- Programming code: By default, every programming code is under copyright. The idea of this setup is to defend the employer legally. However, there are some exceptions for that – what happens if the employee is an outsourcing company or freelancer? What happens if the employee uses a code or skills acquired before starting working with the employer? What happens if the employer has permitted the employee to operate its own company and projects in the same industry? What happens if there was a verbal agreement for partnership between the employer and the employee, but the employer decides not to honor the deal?
In conclusion, the answer to these questions usually is – It depends. Every situation is different, and that’s the reason we have courts for making decisions. Laws typically try following the community’s moral compass; unfortunately, this is not always possible. It is a good idea for us as entrepreneurs to be prepared for any situation using that knowledge. And the list of bad situations includes legal, financial problems, and even personal vendetta from ex-partners and ex-employers. People change with age, and sometimes these changes are for the better, which is why contracts were invented.