Home / Tech / Google can claim rights over code that its employees write for outside projects, and former Googlers say this policy 'could potentially put' other projects at risk (GOOG, GOOGL)

Google can claim rights over code that its employees write for outside projects, and former Googlers say this policy 'could potentially put' other projects at risk (GOOG, GOOGL)

Sundar Pichai

  • According to Google’s policy, it can own intellectual property and code that employees write, even if it’s for outside projects.
  • If Googlers want to retain rights over their code, they have to go through an approval process.
  • Former Googlers say the long process keeps them from contributing to the open source projects, and the policy can even pose a risk to those projects if a tech giant owns rights to the code. 
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While software developer Jonathan Cross was working at Google, he had an urge to contribute to outside projects that involved computer security and privacy.

But when he spoke with colleagues about some of the projects he was excited to write code for, they told him to check his employee contract.

When Cross looked at his contract and Google’s internal policies, he realized the wording could give Google the right to claim ownership over any code he wrote — even if it was for an open source software project. Google had a special approval process in place, but Cross quickly realized that it wasn’t very practical. 

“I didn’t know much about the process so I started to look into it and quite quickly realized that unless I was going to focus on a particular project and make that a single project I got permission for, Google would own the rights to whatever it was I was working on, which is really not appropriate for a large open source project,” Cross told Business Insider.

Whether it’s open source projects they’ve created or even small fixes to other projects, Google can own rights over employees’ code. When people join Google, they sign an agreement that generally states that intellectual property created while employed at the company and which relates to its business or was created using its confidential information is owned by Google.

These policies are also common at other tech giants. But as Silicon Valley companies race to hire the best talent, these policies could potentially affect the retention of employees who want to contribute to open source projects. And most tech companies, including Google, rely on open source software to run their applications and extend their influence.

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Despite that, former Google employees have said that they feel that its IP policies discourage them from contributing to such projects and are now speaking out. In a viral thread, former Google engineer Hector Martin first tweeted about his experiences with this policy.

“It boils down to the way Google approaches intellectual property,” Martin told Business Insider. “The contract with them is kind of assumed to grant them the right to everything.”

Some projects, even if they’re technically in the scope of the agreement employees sign, fall outside of Google’s ownershp interests. At Google, if employees do want to retain the copyright over software that they write, they have to go through an internal system for approval by the Invention Assignment Review Committee (IARC), which decides if Google will waive its copyright interest. 

“As part of your employment agreement, Google most likely owns intellectual property (IP) you create while at the company,” Google’s documentation says. “Because Google’s business interests are so wide and varied, this likely applies to any personal project you have. That includes new development on personal projects you created prior to employment at Google.” 

‘They rejected that and didn’t give a reason or explain anything’

Martin contributed to various projects prior to joining Google. Since he was aware of this policy, he submitted an application to the IARC for two projects he was working on: AsbestOS, which is a bootloader that runs the Linux operating system on Playstation 3, and usbmuxd, which allows people to sync music and other data on their iPhones over USB.

Martin said he felt that both projects “were not particularly interesting to Google as far as I know.” When the IARC got back to him, they approved his application for AsbestOS, but not usbmuxd. 

“They rejected that and didn’t give a reason or explain anything,” Martin said. “That was kind of confusing and left me kind of powerless because I was the original author and maintainer of the software … At that point I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do to keep the product alive.”

Likewise, Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist who left over the company’s potential plans for a censored search engine in China, also found this policy frustrating. Before joining Google, he created an open source project called Elemental that he had been running for years. 

He says he brought this up with a recruiter when joining Google, saying that if Google claimed ownership over his code for this project, this would be a dealbreaker. He says he received verbal confirmation that this would not be an issue. However, when he signed his offer, it wasn’t actually confirmed.

After, he went through the IARC process so he could continue working on Elemental while keeping the rights to his project. This involves an explanation of why the code does not compete with Google’s business interests and senior-level approval. Finally, he was told that he could preserve copyright over the project, but Google retains the right to patent that work.

By then, it was somewhat too late. The entire review process took a year, and during that time, Poulson stopped maintaining the project because of the uncertainty. By the time the review was over, the project was no longer that relevant, Poulson says. 

“It honestly killed the project,” Poulson said. “I felt like I didn’t want to volunteer my time to something somebody else was going to claim ownership over.”

‘There was a hush hush, no one’s going to care’

These rules don’t prohibit people from contributing to open source projects altogether, but Google can claim rights over the code. That being said, Google has specific policies on how employees should release code for open source projects.

Martin says that he has spoken with other Googlers about this policy, and his impression is that they either tend to stop working on outside projects after joining Google or are not going through the review process.

“There was a hush hush, no one’s going to care,” Martin said.

Google itself has been the home of many popular open source projects today, such as the Android mobile operating system, the artificial intelligence project TensorFlow, and the cloud computing project Kubernetes, which was started by Google engineers and donated to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

“We understand that hobbies and personal projects can be important to employees, and we want to support that activity where the outside activity doesn’t create a conflict of interest or other issue for our business,” a Google spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement. 

“For example,” the statement said, “some projects, while technically within the scope of this Agreement, fall outside of Google’s ownership interests. In those cases, waiving copyright interest is a win-win. Google created IARC to review IP created by Googlers that is covered by this Agreement and decide whether the company will waive its copyright interest. 

Still, former employees have said that they feel Google’s policies may discourage them from contributing to open source projects. More often than not, Martin fixes random bugs on a variety of projects, and he says it can be impractical to go through this process for these small fixes. 

“My contributions are one patch to dozens of projects,” Martin said. “That would be way too annoying with the rules. I would have to get approval individually with all the projects.”

Martin admitted that he wasn’t going through this process for small fixes on a mailing list at Google and says he ended up getting banned from the IARC and open sourcing processes.

After that, Martin looked at his contract and said he found a logic loophole that he says technically allows him to contribute code to open source projects, as long as it was on his own equipment outside of business hours and not a result of his work at Google. 

“At that point, I thought, I don’t really have to care about this anymore,” Martin said.

‘It could potentially put the projects at risk’

There’s another potential downfall, Cross says: if a tech giant owns the rights to the code, it could possibly create problems, such as the ongoing lawsuit between Oracle and Google over Java code that was used in Android. 

“It leads to huge headaches, people might have to rewrite parts of the software, and it’s just a big mess,” Cross said. “I wouldn’t want to be a burden on a project like that to open risk for the project.”

Cross was especially fascinated by projects focused on security and privacy, such as encrypted email, cryptocurrency, and Bitcoin wallets. 

After learning about these policies, he just decided not to contribute to those projects. He says he mostly wanted to make small code contributions, and going through Google’s internal processes every time would create an “absurd amount of overhead.” 

“It could potentially put the projects at risk if Google owned the rights to critical pieces of code,” Cross said. “It just would not be responsible of me to contribute while being an employee at Google.”

Cross says that after five years, he had various reasons for leaving Google, but this policy “definitely factored in.” Once Cross left Google, he was once again free to contribute to projects that mattered to him. 

“Open source in my mind is a critical component to modern computer security,” Cross said. “As my interest in this grew, as well as my passion for helping others and spreading these tools, at least for the types of contribution I wanted to make, that was not very realistic while staying at Google. Since leaving Google, it’s been fantastic. I’ve really been able to contribute to hundreds of projects.”

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SEE ALSO: Google is building a new messaging app that brings its own products together with Microsoft Office and Zoom, and it could launch as soon as April

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