How long would my previous employer have to sue me, claiming intellectual property rights on an iPhone app I wrote?


I was reading this thread -

If I'm working at a company, do they
have intellectual property rights to
the stuff I do in my spare time?
It has some great answers to a question I felt personally last year. I was working full time for a company here in the San Francisco Bay Area and was fired after creating an iPhone app on my time, with my own equipment, etc...

I do believe the iPhone app I implemented on my own is legal and doesn't compete with my previous employer or otherwise "actually constitute a material and substantial disruption of my previous employer's operation".

I did sign a "Proprietary Invention Assignment" contract, but it pretty much had the standard wording found in California law.

Since I'm in California, I am convinced there's a strong chance I would win if it ever got to court. But since everything in law seems to be open to interpretation by a given judge or jury and a court battle would probably be painful and expensive, I would prefer to avoid it.

With that in mind, how long would my previous employer have to sue me, claiming intellectual property rights on the iPhone app I wrote?

Alternatively, how long would I have to sue my previous employer for lost wages and benefits and force them to reinstate me in my job?

I have deployed the app and my employer has not sued me so far - but there are additional features I would like to implement. I want to make sure I'll be safe before proceeding and 'waking the sleeping tiger'. My thinking is that as soon as I implement more features - my previous employer could claim some are related to its business somehow and come after my profits.

I know it sounds a bit paranoid, but once you receive horrible threatening letters from your employers lawyers forcing you to hand over code you've worked on for months, you think differently.

I heard different numbers from two different IP lawyers - one said 6 months and one said two years - I wanted to check if anyone had any better experience with this time frame.


Iphone Intellectual Property

asked Feb 13 '11 at 05:48
26 points
  • Is the app similar to work you or your employer was engaged in? Why did you lose your job? – Tim J 13 years ago
  • No the app was not related to what my employer is engaged in. This is a small company, so from the beginning I was in direct talks with the CEO. I realize today a "don't ask, don't tell" policy might have been better - but I approached my boss and the CEO, being transparent about my app. At first the CEO told me there would be no problem. Then he told me I'd just need to change from a full employee to a contractor (losing tons of benefits). It went on that way for a couple of months, every time I accepted the terms, he came up with something else. [more in the next comment...] – User7507 13 years ago
  • [... continued from the comment above] He then offered $5000 for the app, which I turned down. He then claimed that I had to give him the app for free, since anything I'd write while being his employee was his IP - his lawyers got involved and I got some nasty letters. I still refused to hand it over - that's when he fired me. – User7507 13 years ago

3 Answers


I am not a lawyer but I would assume any legal action would be subject to the appropriate statute of limitations. A quick Google search suggests that legal action concerning written contracts in California must be brought within 4 years (unless the contract states a shorter period).

answered Feb 13 '11 at 08:33
Dan Dyer
657 points


Unless you developed the app while you were at work using a work machine and unless your app competes with the company you were working for, you're being extorted as bitcruncher above has pointed out, plain and simple.

The very fact that he offered you money for the app initially should have rung some loud alarm bells. If your boss legitimately thought he owned the rights to your app, why would he have offered you money for it if he thought he was in the right? That's a pretty big alarm bell right there.

If I were you I would sue them. It's going to be a big fight, but if you can somehow prove that you did the development of your application on your own machine (how, I don't know), then you're in the right. The fact he offered you money for an app he claims he owns is another argument you could use in a case, he basically tried to scare tactic you by buying the app.

answered Mar 25 '11 at 10:04
Digital Sea
1,613 points


I'd say the answer is fairly simple, as long as copyright applies to the work, which varies by country, but I believe it's something horrific like 90 years in the US. If your employer is claiming they own everything you create whilst working for them, they are basically saying they own the copyright. In that case it's whether you do anything with that copyrighted material, ever. Since you have done something, if the conditions I describe above were correct, there is no realistic time limit to them sueing you.

However, if the employment contract clause says that you can't do anything external whilst working for the company that takes up a lot of your time (or similar wording) they can't claim your work, but they could take legal action regarding your employment. I would have thought the 6 months and 2 years figures relate to the amount of time that must elapse after you finish employment with a company that you may do anything without having to worry about the co

Worse case, they have both clauses. I find US companies extremely complete in their legal contracts, to the point they surround you with phrases that mean pretty much anything so if the want to sue you for something, they usually can.

My alternative question is, does the revenue you are generating from the app really justify the hassle?

answered Feb 13 '11 at 07:32
David Benson
2,166 points
  • I'll never know whether the revenue generated would be worth the hassle of a lawsuit - unless I continue implementing additional features - which then increases the risk of a lawsuit (as described above). I find that corporate lawyers tend to throw everything at you but the kitchen sink, hoping that something sticks. These lawyers try to intimidate you, and don't really care about facts or reality - they are very much like the mafia. I am curious: your point of view seems to be in line with what I'd expect from someone defending large corporations. Are you a corporate lawyer? – User7507 13 years ago

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