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I would like to open-source a program I wrote for my employer. As I understand it, this is a “work for hire” (at least in the United States) since I wrote the code for them and on their time. This means that they own the copyright, not me, so I can't just publish it of my own accord.

What sort of documentation/agreements do I need to get from them to ensure that the program is properly licensed when I publish it?

  • In what country? This depends a lot on your work contract and the laws applicable to it ! And do you have active support from your immediate boss? – Basile Starynkevitch Aug 12 at 19:47
  • @BasileStarynkevitch In the United States, which is why I mentioned that in the parenthetical. Yes, I have my boss's support; he was perfectly happy to just hand me a zip file and a verbal promise not to sue but I thought I ought to be a little more formal than that. – Wolfgang Aug 12 at 22:15
  • Also, what company size? In a 3 person company, the verbal approval of your boss is probably enough (but I would recommend getting an approval by email at least). But at Google, it cannot be. – Basile Starynkevitch Aug 13 at 5:52
  • @BasileStarynkevitch It's a mid-size company, but I'd imagine the legal aspects would be the same regardless? – Wolfgang Aug 14 at 22:52
  • Not exactly: the social trust between you and your management matters practically a lot – Basile Starynkevitch Aug 15 at 6:06
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The GPLv2 had some advice on the subject:

You should also get your employer (if you work as a programmer) or your school, if any, to sign a "copyright disclaimer" for the program, if necessary. Here is a sample; alter the names:

Yoyodyne, Inc., hereby disclaims all copyright interest in the program `Gnomovision' (which makes passes at compilers) written by James Hacker.

signature of Ty Coon, 1 April 1989

Ty Coon, President of Vice

That said, since your employer paid you to write this code, it is likely that they intend to use it, and they therefore may not be happy to assign the copyright to you. If this is so, your employer can also choose to publish it under the free licence of their choice, which means you can then copy it, host it yourself, fork it, and so on.

If that's the path they take, then although it'd be ideal if they put in all the (say) GPL headers, added a copy of the GPL, put it all up on a website, and so on, all they really need to do is give you a copy and make clear that the conveyance is subject to the licence in question, perhaps by giving you a copy of the complete tarball along with a letter that says

Yoyodyne Inc. conveys this copy of the program "Gnomovision" to James Hacker under the terms of the GNU GPL, version 3 (or at his choice, any later version).

Ty Coon, President of Vice

The advantage of the latter route is that your employer remains free to commercially exploit the code they paid you to write; you, meanwhile, get a copy that you can use freely, and which will (if they pick a copyleft licence) remain free for others to use.

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