The idea of employee intellectual property can raise a lot of questions for both employees and employers. If you are employed in a creative field where you are creating literary or artistic content, a college professor at a university, or work in research and development for a company, you may be confused as to what is considered your intellectual property versus what is that of the company. These questions become particularly pertinent when if and when you seek other employment. (Think prospective employers asking for writing samples, or a rival employer wanting to know the secret ingredient in something.)

How to Know When What’s Yours Is Yours

So, as an employee, how do you know if you own the rights to your intellectual property?

If you signed something called an assignment agreement upon being hired, depending upon the verbiage, there is a very real possibility that not only does your employer own the intellectual property you create while at the office, they may also have a claim on projects that you create in your free-time, even if they have nothing to do with the job for which you were hired. Depending upon where you live, however, there may be a silver lining, as several states, including California and North Carolina, have passed laws making it more difficult for companies to take ownership of an employees creativity.

So, what if you did not sign an assignment agreement, or you are lucky enough to live in a state that has a strong appreciation of employee rights? You may still be in a situation where your employer owns the intellectual property to anything you created using company resources, on company time. You will want to consult all of the paperwork you signed when you were hired.

If you are working on side projects on your own time, you can protect yourself by keeping thorough records of everything you are working on, progress that you have made, dates, etc. By then mailing these records to yourself, the postmark will serve as a copyright.

Anything that was created during work hours, using company resources, and otherwise in the regular course of your day and work, is the intellectual property of the employer, by default. As such, you may want to steer clear of using company time or resources for your side projects. Save your side projects for evenings and weekends, when you are at home, just to err on the side of caution.

It’s Not All Bad News

While it may seem as though your employer is going to have rights to everything in your head, that is not true, either. Intellectual property that came about throughout the course of your regular work day (in the absence of an agreement stating otherwise) also has to be applicable to the job for which you are hired. For example, if you are hired as a marketing expert who is expected to create marketing plans, social media strategy and content, then sequence of code that you wrote for that computer science class you are taking at night, may be off-limits.

Sign on the Dotted Line

You may be thinking that the last thing an employee should do is sign anything regarding their intellectual property, for fear that they may be signing over their brain. While it’s certainly important, especially if you work in a field or profession in which intellectual property is of concern, to have a lawyer review any employment documentation before you sign it, you can be protecting yourself and your intellectual property rather than losing it.

By carefully reviewing what you are signing, you can ensure that side projects that you create on your time, with your own resources, are not the property of your employer. You can ensure that they only have rights to the intellectual property that you created that is within the scope of the job for which you were hired.

It can also save both you and your employer a lot of headaches, if and when the time comes for you to move, if everyone has always been on the same page regarding who owns what.

If you need help with employee intellectual property, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.