Great ideas need protection

It’s great news when an employee has an idea that has real commercial value – but what if they refuse to let your business use it?

This could be a real problem if their idea could really help your company and as an employer, you need to take steps to avoid this happening in the first place.

Maybe their idea is for a new database, a new product, or an advertising campaign, and you’re keen to implement it.

The trouble comes when they refuse to let you use it, claiming that they “own” the idea, but offer to “sell” it to you at a price.

The good news is that if the employee has nothing written down – perhaps they suggested the idea at a meeting or mentioned it to you in conversation – then it’s just a thought that no-one can legally own.

So you’d be free to do whatever you like with it and there’s nothing they could do to stop you.

But if they’ve committed their idea to paper, they would certainly be the creator or the inventor of it, but not necessarily the legal owner.

If an employee creates or invents something in the course of their normal work that is connected to their job, then you, as the employer, would be the legal owner.

If however they’ve worked on their idea in their own time and it is unconnected to their line of work, then they would own the idea: it’s a grey area though because you may still have legal rights depending on what they have invented and the information they used.

And if it’s a senior staff member that has the idea, the law is even stricter. Staff at this level have a “special obligation” to further the interests of their employer, and any invention or idea they create in the course of their duties will always belong to you and your business.

The best idea is to avoid tricky situations in the first place by adding a strong intellectual property clause to staff employment contracts – no matter what level they’re at.

This way, you should minimise the risks of any awkward confrontations, and ensure that it’s your business that benefits from the knowledge and skills of your staff.