My employer wants to take ownership of my MIT-licensed gem

While furloughed during the COVID times I started a little pet project, The Brick. It inspects your existing database tables and views, and auto-creates any missing MVC things to become a minimally scaffolded functional thing, running just in RAM. The thought was for this thing to help out during the early phases when you’re building a new app – the pages you haven’t done yet can at least show something. Or if all you wanted was a simple admin interface, it would allow you to easily browse through the data in a Rails app with zero footprint – no files created and it all just works.

After regrouping back in the office then this side project went on the back burner, and over the past year I’ve just been messing with it after work and on weekends. Finally released v1 of it back in March. It became smarter about belongs_to and has_many associations, now supports all popular relational database engines, auto-creates RESTful API endpoints when the Swagger gem is present, etc. It’s grown up and has become more useful.

At work it so happened that we needed APIs to be auto-created for our Rails app based on existing database views, so of course I mentioned this gem. Put together a quick demo to show it working, and the team got pretty excited, with my manager saying, “I didn’t know that we were this far along”. At that time I was thankful to have contributed to the open source community, and thought my employer was thankful in the same kind of way.

After a second demo showing the full feature set of this open source gem, my manager then realised – hey – this is not owned by the company, and something that an employee has created on their own. He brought up the thought, “this puts us in a difficult position because I did not know that we had released a gem”. So I explained, “well, the company hasn’t released this gem – it’s work I’ve done in my spare time in order to contribute to the open source community”. It then takes the direction, “read your contract – anything that an employee creates while employed with the company belongs to the company”. And I continue with, “what if I wrote a book and published it – would that be company property?” and so forth, continuing with, “we use hundreds of gems that people have created and that is not work owned by the company. We’ve even contributed updates to those gems so that the entire community benefits.” And it goes on with this manager indicating, “I didn’t know that we had delivered updates to other gems – and this work also puts the company at risk. I should be made aware of that.” I, along with all of my team mates, are completely aghast by all of this.

Now three days into this mess this manager is having a meeting with HR to see what legal options are available.

I had moved my family from California over to UK in order to help out at this small startup, and am completely disgusted that things could ever have gotten to this point. These kinds of actions are sure to make it more difficult to hire new developer talent, this at a time when it would be useful for us to grow our team.

Perplexed as to how this ever could have beome this insane, at this point I’m just wondering – has anyone else faced anything similar with an employer? Have you had to educate people about how open source software works, or the overall ethos of the Rails community?

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very sad case of corporate greed, just leave, it’s a tough decision, but there is plenty of RoR jobs out there with companies who understand what OSS is and how it works and encourage people to contribute


That sounds pretty ~f*~messed up.

Besides been seen as a value-issue it can also be seen as an educational issue, where the manager has an opportunity to learn. I was also pretty shocked finding out how few Free and Open Source Software is understood in the industry; where it actually forms a basis of the work of many.

Also, your manager probably does not understand licenses. From my understanding, the legal action would require them to become copyright holders, based on clauses in your contract or by proof that you did create bricks during your paid time. What you can offer is a dual license and sell your code to your employer. The so far released code (the idea looks great btw! kudos) would stay MIT licensed, though. But IANAL.

Contributing to and improving the foundations on which (some of us) build should be enforced by the contract, not forbidden.

(That said, I also had issues with wording around this topic in the default contract I got, although we are pretty cool)

Like @honzasterba said, it would be great if employees stood up. Most rails devs are in the fortunate situation to be able to pick their game. Choose employers that don’t burn you out, that care about you and others. Btw, we are hiring.

I’d be happy if you keep us posted. If you need advise from people with experience in this field, contacting the FSFE might be worth a try, they should be able to forward you to people who are able to give you support.

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My understanding is that most tech companies have some kind of stipulation in their contracts that say that anything you work on (at least on your issued laptop) is property of the company that you work for. My anecdotal experience is that usually the people running the show aren’t tech-savvy enough to do anything about it. I’m sorry that you’ve been put into this situation, it sounds really demoralizing. The only silver lining I can think of is to keep this experience in mind when interviewing at other companies and make sure that they’re more open.

Good luck to you! I hope it gets resolved in your favor.


Yep, sadly it’s a pretty common clause in contracts. It’s something you should have possibly negotiated in your contract before signing which is also a pretty common thing to do.

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It is a pretty common clause, yes, but as far as I know it is also not a legal clause, both in the EU and many states in the US. I researched this back when an employer wanted to put it in the contracts we presented to new employees.

Maybe this gov website can help you research: Intellectual property and your work: What intellectual property is - GOV.UK

Anyhoo, I am hiring a Senior Rails backender at the moment if you are interested in chatting? :slight_smile: if you are, shoot me a DM Eff those people!

If you have created and released a gem (a package of code) under the MIT License, your employer does not have the right to take ownership of it. The MIT License is a permissive open-source license that allows others to use, modify, and distribute the code, as long as the original copyright notice and the license are included. As the original author of the gem, you retain the copyright to the code and have the ability to license it to others.

However, your employer may have a different perspective on this matter, as they may have invested time and resources in the development of the gem and may have a valid claim to the ownership of the code. It would be best to have a conversation with your employer about the post, and if necessary, consult with a lawyer to understand your rights and obligations.