Monday, September 26, 2011

Intellectual Property - Laws vs. Practice

The listserve has been pretty quiet lately, so I thought I’d see if I can stir up a discussion about something that’s been on my mind:  Some recent events at our company have prompted some discussion about intellectual property pertaining to the development and use of an engineer’s spreadsheets (or similar tools – programs, Mathcad or Tedds templates, etc. – but I’ll refer to them all as “spreadsheets”).  My understanding is that the IP laws would say that if an engineer develops a spreadsheet to design or analyze something while in the employment of a company, this is considered “work for hire”, and the spreadsheet is owned by the company.  If the engineer leaves, the spreadsheet is to remain with the employer.  However, my experience has been that structural engineers typically ignore such laws and company policies, and assemble over the course of their careers a library of spreadsheets, some of which they have developed themselves and others that they have inherited from coworkers, previous employees, Web sites, etc.  We also tend to add to others’ libraries of spreadsheet tools by sharing things that we have developed with coworkers or even friends who may work at other firms.  Consequently, there’s a pool full of spreadsheets floating around in the structural community, any portion of which may be in use at any given company at any given time.


Is my experience consistent with what you’ve experienced in your careers?  Do you agree that a company should own the spreadsheets of its employees developed during the course of employment?  Do your companies typically try to enforce the laws to keep such intellectual property protected?  Is there any simple way to do that?  If they try to protect their IP, do they also respect the IP of others, and ask an incoming employee to leave behind any tools that they may have in their library, and only use those that are developed while in the current engagement?


I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences.


-- Joel


Joel Adair   PE, LEED® AP BD+C
Lead Structural Engineer

SHW Group

Plano, TX