Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkasten and copyright - Does my company own (part of) my notes?

I'm new to this forum and to Zettelkasten-like note taking in general. I somehow managed to get through a M.Sc. in computer science and a few years at an applied research institute without a real system for note-taking. One thing that's been consistently stopping me is a worry that I don't see many people write about: copyright.

If I have a single system that I use as my external brain that contains insights I gained at work and at home, then don't a portion of notes technically belong to the company I currently work for? Even if they're not directly work-item related but more general insights gained from work and noted down during work.

This seems like I would either need to make an artificial division in my note-taking system that people can later argue about if something ever comes of it, or quietly ignore the problem.

I know I can separate out everything that's actually related to day-to-day work activities rather easily, if I want to publish a paper that's a step I'd need to take anyway. But I'm not sure if that's enough.

What are your thoughts on this problem? Am I being paranoid? Is it better to just not worry and do what I think should be ok?

Comments

  • When you have an idea at work, why should the idea belong to your employer?

    When I signed an Intellectual Property Assignment contract earlier this year, the English version indeed appeared very greedy. We ended up changing the wording so that I could affort to think and be creative while employed, lest the pictures I draw on weekends and the poems I write in candlelight be taken away from me :)

    Do you clauses like that in your contract? If so, you should consult a lawyer.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • http://christiantietze.de/

  • edited November 9

    I'm not thinking poems and pictures. I work for a place that does computer vision research and software development.
    My notes could separate into work project notes and "background notes".
    Work project notes would be things like like "add feature x" or details about the software or internal processes that would obviously belong to the institute.
    Background notes would be things like "what is the PAC design pattern?", "in [1] the following algorithm is described", things about how various libraries work and so on. But the background notes are usually the result of performing research in order to fulfill my function at my job.

    Edited to add:
    Basically, the notes I'm worried about is the information I currently only keep in my head or with an idea on where to find them again. All the little bits of knowing how to do or find something, reasons for why I do things the way I do things, etc. While they're in my head, they're obviously mine.

    But if I write them down during work that note I just created could become a piece of copyrighted information that I now have to transfer usage rights of to my employer, possibly sole usage rights, I didn't find the right clauses yet.

    So if I change jobs I may end up with a box of notes where some are "tainted" by having their usage rights transferred away from me that need to be filtered out, rewritten or otherwise treated differently when I want to write anything with my box.

  • @confusopoly said:

    So if I change jobs I may end up with a box of notes where some are "tainted" by having their usage rights transferred away from me that need to be filtered out, rewritten or otherwise treated differently when I want to write anything with my box.

    As a general rule, ideas cannot be copyrighted, only their expression. Ideas can be patented, however, although there exist legal barriers that prevent all ideas from being patented. Your concern is with intellectual property, and in your case, trade secrets. The best course is to keep all your notes but avoid writing or revealing to a new employer any technical or scientific knowledge the divulgence of which would damage the business of your former employer. When in doubt consult a lawyer. Intellectual property is a specialized field, so you will need a lawyer whose practice is solely intellectual property.

  • @tomjlowe said:

    @confusopoly said:

    So if I change jobs I may end up with a box of notes where some are "tainted" by having their usage rights transferred away from me that need to be filtered out, rewritten or otherwise treated differently when I want to write anything with my box.

    As a general rule, ideas cannot be copyrighted, only their expression. Ideas can be patented, however, although there exist legal barriers that prevent all ideas from being patented. Your concern is with intellectual property, and in your case, trade secrets. The best course is to keep all your notes but avoid writing or revealing to a new employer any technical or scientific knowledge the divulgence of which would damage the business of your former employer. When in doubt consult a lawyer. Intellectual property is a specialized field, so you will need a lawyer whose practice is solely intellectual property.

    I second that. I really second that.

    However, my personal, totally non-legal collection of opinions is:

    • Computer Vision research & SW dev??? Awesome! We might have something in common :+1:
    • all my employers value me being super productive
    • when I use my special tools (i.e. EverNote, then Zettelkasten), it's my personal way of note keeping - hence nobody's business.
    • this might pose a special issue: if your employer demands that you hand over everything you created during the time you were employed there - how to keep things separate?
    • My take on it is along the "just don't tell anyone" line. I always kept my paper notebooks when I left, so why would I leave my digital notes at an employer's? It's part of my personal development. Exactly the thing that makes me super productive.
    • I usually turn it into an interface question: What needs to be handed over I treat as a sort of product. Notes I had taken that enabled me to create that handover-deliverable, are my personal notes. Every party gets what they want - so no fuzz is being made.
    • People can demand only so much of me. They can hardly enforce much of it. If I encrypt my notes properly, I can take them with me anywhere and nobody can do anything about it. Not even tell.
    • As long as my employer is happy with my output, they usually let me do what I want.
    • They also usually tend to trust me. I would never re-use something verbatim, for example, anyway. Most of the time, even my most thought-to-be-generic implementations find themselves faced with a special case at the new job anyway.
    • If I know how to solve a specific problem, I won't try to solve the exact same problem in a different way at a new job - see? Had I written it down - would I be forced to find a different way of solving the problem? That seems ridiculous.
    • As a general rule, I don't take source code with me or anything too related to sensitive work. I'm sure I made exceptions in the past ... many years, even if just for the sake of being able to answer follow-up questions later, not for re-use.
    • New stuff is more interesting than the by then old stuff anyway
    • What I find perfectly fine to take with me: things up to the extent of some algorithms (pseudo code / python snippets) like super-fancy-sort or sth like that. I mean, WTF? It's not like it's patented, causes no harm, no super competitive advantage?
    • Basically: It's only a matter of time until I can re-create sth I've done, anyway - some tips and tricks are worth to keep - so let's not make a fuzz about some notes I jotted down half a year ago.
    • We're talking notes here. So that's not even source code - and papers???? Stuff that gets published anyway? I think you would know where to draw the line here.
    • ... I could probably go on and on with seemingly random thoughts on this.

    But you get the idea: I'm in the "don't be too paranoid", "do what you think is OK" camp. Exactly the kind of advice that can get you into trouble, though. I know. So treat it only as what it is: my opinions. I have never had any troubles in 20 years of work - but I'm sure I've taken the one or other note at work :smile: .

    Legal advice is strongly recommended in some/most cases, especially if you sense that your employer might be a pain in that regard. Legal advice might not be to your liking, though. Like: To get to 0 risk, take 0 notes.

    Not sure if that helped - don't want to get you into trouble.

    Cheers!

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