Code Copyrighted


What's the deal if you are:

  1. The only technical person on your start up / and or the one doing programming.
  2. Haven't made a penny 'on-the-books' in terms of your startup

    Is the code you write on your developer machine automatically copyrighted in your name and not in the startups name ?

In addition, at what point does it change that the code you are producing becomes property of the startup?

Co-Founder Development Technical Copyright Copywriting

asked Jul 21 '11 at 03:59
229 points
  • You need to clarify things here. Are you a principal in the company? Are there any other principals? Are you an employee? What exactly is the structure? – Tim J 13 years ago
  • Tim - thanks for all your comments. I was a tech cofounder, then we all decided no one has titles. I'm the sole "developer" for the product, but I haven't signed any contracts other than nondisclosure and I haven't been paid a cent or have any contract or salary setup yet. (and there are no plans yet) until we get initial funding – User9968 13 years ago
  • Impossible to answer without knowing legal jurisdiction. Where is company incorporated, where is it based and where are you working? And which applicable law (country / region) is stated in the contracts you've signed? – Paperjam 13 years ago
  • Company is out of PA. Source code written in PA and in NJ. – User9968 13 years ago

4 Answers


@user9968 , your question didn't contain the relevant information required to answer it.

You're a person. If you create some code, then absent any contracts or agreements stating otherwise, the copyright on the code belongs to you.

However, the most common situation is that developers have signed contracts which transfer copyright of their work -- the most common example is the employment contract -- see more below.

The obvious questions are:

  1. Which contracts (if any) have you signed, and what do they say?
  2. Have you done anything to inadvertently, either implicitly or explicitly, transfer copyright (or reasonable assumptions of having copyright) to someone else?
Regarding your contractual obligations: Read Joel's answer about copyright for software developers first, and then have a look at your current and past employment contracts, partnership contracts, freelancer contracts, etc.

Regarding inadvertently transferring copyright, that's a little bit more complicated.

  • Have you written the code on a corporate laptop?
  • Have you checked it in to a corporate SVN/Git repository?
  • Have you made headers in the source code with "Copyright 2011 Company Name"?
  • Have you written emails stating that the company has a ready product, a product that could only be your code?
  • Made any verbal agreements?
  • etc?

If the answer to both issues above is a "no!", then you're in the clear -- the code you wrote belongs to you personally, as it does by default.

Important: The above is not qualified legal advice, and you really should go see a lawyer.

answered Jul 21 '11 at 05:27
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points
  • 1. I have signed a non-disclosure agreement. And signed a contract stating I get 10% equity, however, we recently decided to bag the idea of equity until we get funding (verbally). 2.None that I'm aware of. I'm developing on my locally-run web-server. None of the source is even online yet. The ONLY copyright I wrote was on the footer saying Copyright 2011 . All Rights Reserved. – User9968 13 years ago
  • @Kekito: That's very precise, thank you. :-) But, I think it's also the same as what I'm trying to say, and what Joel's answer (which I linked to) says in greater detail. Did I write something in an unclear way? – Jesper Mortensen 13 years ago
  • @user9968: You will need to review your agreements in detail, you can't just write "non-disclosure agreement" here and be done with it. Read it, what does it say? What about the other agreements, what are the specific clauses in them? If you can't be bothered yourself, then take the complete pile to a lawyer, and ask him to sort it out for you. – Jesper Mortensen 13 years ago
  • @Kekito: Yes, and that's what I guarded against with "absent any contracts ... stating otherwise" -- with the employment contract being the one that states otherwise? Well, I have added a new line below which hopefully makes it clearer. Otherwise feel free to edit. – Jesper Mortensen 13 years ago


There's an implied duty of loyalty and good faith among members of a joint venture. When a group of people all contribute to a speculative endeavor, courts tend to think that any gain from the endeavor should be shared fairly among them. Meinhard v. Salmon is the classic case on this.

That doctrine might not apply in your particular circumstances. I don't know, without the details and a lot more legal research. But you should know that it's out there: you could run into trouble if you assume that black-letter copyright law is all that's at issue.

answered Jul 21 '11 at 08:44
121 points
  • I'd see it as three questions, in sequence. First, if there's a contract, that controls. (absent statutory overrides, equity, etc etc.) Second, if there's no express contract, you consider whether to imply duties based on *Meinhard* reasoning. Finally if *Meinhard* doesn't apply, you fall through to whatever the default copyright ownership rules are. – Zopa 13 years ago


If you signed a non-disclosure and discussed the idea together, and baked the idea together then you couldn't probably do anything with the code anyways as it would probably break your NDA. My guess is I would error on the side of the group / company owning it since you guys all baked the idea together.

Watch - The Social Network ;) in the end it's who is willing to fight for it.

answered Jul 21 '11 at 13:31
Ryan Doom
5,472 points
  • Lol. saw the social network. I love how a lot of entrepreneurs on biz end are all scared now. – User9968 13 years ago


It depends on what your work agreement/contract says. Did you sign anything or agree to anything that transfers ownership of your work to another entity?

answered Jul 21 '11 at 04:24
Tim J
8,346 points
  • The only agreement I signed was a non-disclosure agreement. – User9968 13 years ago
  • I did not sign anything stating any code i wrote was in ownership of the startup – User9968 13 years ago
  • How can he be an employee without getting compensation? That would not meet the criteria of being an employee. – Tim J 13 years ago
  • I have quote on quote 10% equity, of $0, equity at this stage without any funding is meaningless. That's why we bagged any ideas of "oh you have 10 and I have 50 and you have 30 and you have 10". Because until there is funding that's meaningless. So, what is it, is the source code I hand-typed on my mac (personal computer) copyrighted in MY NAME or THE STARTUPs? That's the question. – User9968 13 years ago

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