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When an employee is hired to do a job assigned by his employer and, in carrying out those assigned duties, the employee makes a discovery, invention, or improvement to a product who owns that intellectual property?

The law holds that the intellectual rights to that discovery, its application to any process belongs to the employer.

The employer being the owner, can use the invention in conjunction with its products or can outright sell it to any third party as an owner could do. In fact, if the employer decides to do nothing with the improvement for whatever reason, the fact that it isn’t being used has no bearing on whether the employee owns it or not.

Quite often the rights of the employer are clearly defined in the employment agreement.

These agreements usually require the return of all property of the employer that the employee is in possession of at the time of termination and not to disclose to anyone what you might have discovered during his/her employment.

The requirement to return all of the employer’s property is sometimes not enough protection for the employer to protect the confidentiality of the improvement. The knowledge developed will leave the company with the employee. They might be tempted to pass the concept along to a competitor to secure another job and pick up where they left off.

Whether “passing along” this information is a breach of contract is difficult to prove in court and success will depend on the facts of each case. Nevertheless, the employer should take all necessary precautions to protect what rightfully belongs to it.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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