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Ethical??
6

Ethical??

Ethical??

(OP)
Hi,
I'd like to hear your honest opinion regarding an ethical dilemma I'm facing. I have saved a few d esign pro jects from my former employer that I sometimes use as a technical resource on my new job. My counscience is eating at me for not deleting the pdfs after leaving the employer, specially considering that i have not contributed much to those p rojects. I also dont have a good technical resource at my curremt place of employment, which I feel contributes to this dimemma, otherwise I would have deleted those d ocuments. I dont see any issues with keeping p rojects from the past for which i served as d esign engineer.

Thoughts?
Thanks,
EE

RE: Ethical??

Legally the documents sound like their the intellectual property of the organization which expended the resources, be it monetary or labor, to create them, and as such is owned by said organization. And as such, they have the right to share them, either for a fee or gratis, it's their call, which is the key issue here, IT'S THEIR CALL, not yours.

So, are they aware that you have these documents? And if so, were you given a 'license', be it written or verbal, covering how you intended to use them?

If not, and if you consider them critical to you, then contact them and come to some sort of agreement. If not, you should really destroy them. At least that's my humble opinion.

And for the record, while I have no hard legal experience nor legal education, I have, over the years, been involved in some patent activity, both in terms of my own contributions and in helping to protect my employer(s) from legal threats from outside the company that involved research to validate, or in same cases to invalidate, patent claims due to my professional experience with certain technologies which were the subject of the patent claims. I also held a valid Professional Engineering license for nearly 40 years, and only let it lapse after I retired a couple of years ago.

John R. Baker, P.E. (ret)
EX-Product 'Evangelist'
Irvine, CA
Siemens PLM:
UG/NX Museum:

The secret of life is not finding someone to live with
It's finding someone you can't live without

RE: Ethical??

It happens and it happens a lot. The most egregious I heard was someone bringing in their relay study documentation from their previous company to an interview to show what they had done. He was hired in spite of that. A group of us tried to convince him after he was hired that that was really bad and to never do that again.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.

RE: Ethical??

When I arrived in a new city in SoCal and worked for several structural engineering firms, I soon learned they were all using "proprietary" details that had been brought in by drafter new hires from their previous firms, errors and all.

RE: Ethical??

Entirely unethical (though common, as noted).

My personal stance:
  • It's OK to bring along notes or calculations that remind you of what you have personally done on previous projects. (If you were an EOR on a project, or need to apply for licensure in the future, this might be especially necessary)
  • This is not the same as bringing along electronic tools (e.g. spreadsheets, drawing details, etc). Presuming those were made on company time, those are the work product of your previous employer.
  • If you want to use calculation tools or drawing details from previous jobs, you need to ask permission from that previous employer. OR, recreate the tool/detail (from scratch, break the digital lineage) using your experience, memory, and notes.
Nowadays, there are a number of great free resources that you can use to build your reference library ethically. Don't trouble your conscience out of laziness.


----
The name is a long story -- just call me Lo.

RE: Ethical??

Whether or not it is ethical, the more important thing is will it come back and bite you. There are no secrets in the engineering field. Word gets around and it can leave a negative that my some day be something you will wish never happened. Better be honest, in spite of the possible loss of some ammunition.

RE: Ethical??

2
Get permission, it is often freely given. Then use only where appropriate, and after diligent editing. Not from the digital era, but I still have some details and calculations from previous employers, along with accumulated technical notes not from the employer, but accumulated during that time, and using the employer's copier and paper. I don't feel ethically conflicted. Learning doesn't cease when you graduate, and you can't remember everything. A key to being a good engineer is not recalling everything, but knowing where to look.

RE: Ethical??

hokie66...exactly!

RE: Ethical??

When I left my prior firm, they had a complicated legal agreement drawn up that said, basically, "don't steal our stuff." Since much of that stuff was stuff I developed for them, I made changes to the agreement to where it said, "don't steal our stuff, except for the stuff you designed and could easily replicate on your own anyway." They agreed to the changes. I kept using some of the stuff. Didn't use the stuff that I didn't develop.

Hydrology, Drainage Analysis, Flood Studies, and Complex Stormwater Litigation for Atlanta and the South East - http://www.campbellcivil.com

RE: Ethical??

2
My history is similar to beej67's. A lot of the things that I use are "typical" details and spreadsheets
The details were generally developed by me under the payroll of my employers. So there is an argument that the material totally belongs to them.

However, a few counter points:
1. The firm already had older typical details which I refused to use - I developed my own - usually after hours.
2 The firm had no spreadsheets and many or most of these I wrote after hours. I did tweak and correct some of them during hours though.
3. The typical details and spreadsheets are not usually (ever?) highly protected secret double probation type materials. I can and do replicate them from memory many times. No one is out there selling these types of products as they are many times easy to recreate.
4. Since we are in a profession, these are looked at as tools of the trade - not unlike a plumbers cache of tools they take with them from company to company.
5. All of the material I keep with me is also left with the firm when I leave. So they have full access to it.
6. None of this material gives any firm a leg up on anyone else.
7. In all cases I was on salary - vs. an hourly employee. This makes a difference in the counter argument that the materials represent items that were created at company expense and therefore their property. Being on salary means I'm being compensated to provide engineering for an annual salary independent of hours. This means that I am not really ever "on the clock" in doing my job. I am a professional paid to satisfy the entire job description so if I take an hour to develop a detail for my use as a professional, I am not "stealing time" from the company as I am not paid based on time.

Check out Eng-Tips Forum's Policies here:
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RE: Ethical??

This issue is why I usually try to separate tool creation and project calculations. If I need to do a calculation, I'll go ahead and do it right off the bat. But then after work I'll make a tool (Python is my method of choice) to automate the calculation. Could be something as simple as a gearbox overhung load function or as complex as a bolt design calculator. But either way - I made it on my own time using my own knowledge. Now I can bring my own resource back into work the next day and do the calculations faster but also keep the resource without a conflict of interest.

RE: Ethical??

Two plus decades ago, I used my new pocket hard drive to carry out a copy of the entire directory tree I had been working on. Then the job disappeared, as they do.

Not long after, I got to feeling guilty, and erased the copy.

A couple of years back, I got a call from that company, asking if I had saved anything, more specifically drawings of the wear parts for tooling I had designed and assembled for them. Sorry, no. So they paid me to go to their shop, measure the worn parts, and make conjectural drawings of what they might have looked like when new.

Before doing that, I asked about backups; 'that was three servers ago'.
I asked about the hard drive on the computer from my desk. The answer suggested that they discard or erase former employees' hard drives. Neither tactic makes sense to me, but it's their money.



Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: Ethical??

From a legal and ethical standpoint, if you are a salaried employee then everything you do on and off the clock during your employment is company property unless they've waived their right to it. Tools created after hours at home are no more yours than the office furniture. That said, most companies unofficially have a certain level of tolerance otherwise. So long as you're not giving away copies of standards, tools, or other things which can be traced to either them or you then I believe they simply accept that minor mementos get past the standard "supervised desk cleaning" without proper documentation, are kept for personal reference or nostalgia by the individual, and are not worth trying to chase through the legal dept. Personally, I would never consider taking anything that constitutes IP/trade secrets from an employer. I also would never consider using the same tool or spreadsheet at multiple employers regardless of where/when created. My work commonly involves new patents and technology which tend to be rather jealously guarded and regardless of the legal consequences, as oldesguy said above, the small world of engineering will notice duplication and you'll earn a reputation accordingly.

RE: Ethical??

I'd re-write the content, assuming you wouldn't be copying any proprietary information. I've written many design guidelines and standards that did not contain trade secrets but rather brought together common knowledge into a logical format.

RE: Ethical??

I don't know about these hard line responses that under no circumstances can you ever refer to projects from your old company. The attitude of secrecy hurts us all at some level. How is that ethical?

RE: Ethical??

Quote:

The attitude of secrecy hurts us all at some level.

I disagree completely. The worst thing we could ever do is stifle innovation. Competition is what spurs innovation, and competition is based on adding value (quality/cost) for the customer, which is based largely on secrecy. Since you can only compete on cost alone so much, eventually you innovate to find ways to make products better, which costs more. If you had to share IP with competitors then you'd be struggling or out of business quickly, they don't have the overhead investment of your innovation so can sell the same product cheaper. This is exactly what has happened to many North American and European firms competing with legalized IP theft in Asia and elsewhere in recent decades. Not that a SE likely ever would, but if you spent some time in a product definition role overseas you'd also notice the opposite truth - in areas where IP theft is legal and common there is a serious lack of innovation, which ultimately hurts us far more than anything.

RE: Ethical??

"in areas where IP theft is legal and common there is a serious lack of innovation, which ultimately hurts us far more than anything."

That is not true over time; Japan, China, India, etc., all started out with IP theft and copycatting early on, but most have used the revenue they gained to boost themselves into serious competition. Japan was once known as the place where cheap transistor radios were made, but they upped the ante by following Deming and produced cars that were cheaper and lasted forever; it took the US by surprise and nearly 30 years to get back into contention. China is still copycatting, but the revenue they garnered has paid for serious innovations that are, in many cases, better than US developments.

Humans, by nature, are inquisitive and prone to invention. Even when copycatting, someone is bound to see something and think, "I can do that better, or cheaper."

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

"That is not true over time; Japan, China, India, etc., all started out with IP theft and copycatting early on, but most have used the revenue they gained to boost themselves into serious competition."

I think that demonstrates exactly what CWB1 was referring to - they were mostly stealing and copycatting innovations from the United States and Western Europe. As a result, manufacturing in the US and Western Europe has taken a big hit.

RE: Ethical??

Quote:

That is not true over time; Japan, China, India, etc., all started out with IP theft and copycatting early on, but most have used the revenue they gained to boost themselves into serious competition....

No doubt things change over time, my simple observation is that there seems to be an inverse correlation between IP protection and innovation. I concur on Japan, they've really stepped things up over the last 40 years. China, India, and many others are still modernizing so no doubt things will be fluid over time, but IME innovation is the exception in those areas.

RE: Ethical??

CWB1 - agreed that innovation is important and maybe things are a little different in the manufacturing and product world where intellectual property is used as a primary mode of controlling competitors, but in the construction world you have to file drawings with your local Department of Buildings. Every project where clients are secretive and employ NDA's comes out more expensive and with more problems because of lack of communication.

RE: Ethical??

China has gotten very strong in AI and hypersonic aerodynamics. The latter is of particular concern to the US, since we've actually fallen behind on hypersonics, and there really wasn't anything to copycat, since it's all strategic military IP.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

IRstuff, my commentary (and CWB1's, I presume) was directed towards how China, etc. got to the position they're in now, by mass-producing knock-off consumer products based on innovative research and development done by others over the last 30 years or so.

RE: Ethical??

Yes, I understood that; my point was that that was the way to innovation in the future; California wines started that way, in a way. When starting out, there's not much else to compete on except cost and stealing technology. China did that with the silk trade, essentially stealing silkworm "IP" from Japan and undercutting them.

It's not clear to me there is ever a 3rd world starting position that can do without copycatting and stealing IP.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

Quote (IRStuff)

China has gotten very strong in AI and hypersonic aerodynamics. The latter is of particular concern to the US, since we've actually fallen behind on hypersonics, and there really wasn't anything to copycat, since it's all strategic military IP.
You do realize they've stolen a slew of IP in those fields from American military contractors, right? They didn't buy something sold off the shelf and reverse engineer it, they broke into "secured" servers and took the data directly.

Pretty easy to jump to the head of the line in any research topic when you can let someone else do/pay for the work for you.

Dan - Owner
http://www.Hi-TecDesigns.com

RE: Ethical??

How much of China's economic strength is built on IP theft could be debated, probably endlessly. However, to use their current situation to suppose that IP theft bolsters future innovation is a supposition with several logical fallacies, and it really doesn't even pass the 'smell test', does it?

RE: Ethical??

Yes, it does; innovation is expensive, regardless of where the IP comes from. You cannot build 8th gen i7s using the photolithography tools used on the 6th gen i7s. So, you need to have massive amounts of monies to build hypersonic aircraft or quantum computers. Both of these are lagging in the US, by comparison. These monies come from having a trade surplus. So, not only did they steal IP from us, we're also funding their ability to leapfrog us.

Alternately, you can look at Africa, and only one country, South Africa, comes close competing with us, because they've got a viable trade position. Of course, the rest of Africa has other problems like genocide, internecine warfare, and massive corruption.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

You make a fair case that capital is necessary for development of innovations. I don't think you're making a good case that IP theft increases innovation. Human nature being what it is (selfish), IP theft undoubtedly destroys the incentive for people to innovate, though.

RE: Ethical??

In the book Gun Germs and Steel the author makes the argument that technology spreads more by virtue of knowing that a certain idea is possible, not necessarily by direct imitation. For example, if stone age man sees a chunk of cast iron, he can focus his effort on creating the same without fear that its a dead end.

RE: Ethical??

Back on the original topic:-

As per the original query I don't personally have an issue keeping or referencing stuff I personally worked on, be it example project calculations, reference drawings, personal spreadsheets developed on company time for specific purposes, etc. Certainly our local professional licencing requires you to maintain evidence of past work practice for the purposes of 4-6 yearly reviews on your Chartered Professional Engineer status, and you can quite easily have a number of employers during that time and sourcing these examples after the fact can be quite challenging.

I wouldn't/don't keep stuff by others like company spreadsheets (etc), but main reason is they usually have a high percentage chance of containing errors and/or I cannot follow how they work and there is very little in the way of formal verification (basically no one knows who wrote them, and I don't fully trust them without taking them for a serious test drive to determine if they are in fact a well oiled machine or an old rust bucket). This is as opposed to this stance being primarily a question of maintaining/respecting a firms IP. Most stuff like this is better to recreate yourself from the same principles so you understand how it works (and hopefully discover all the errors others made).

Drawings & specifications/calculations unless confidential are in the public domain and are easily sourced from local authorities in this part of the world, so any member of the public can effectively obtain them.

Previous employers have benefited from the tools/templates I have created, to some degree these things were produced on my own time and were produced for my own personal use in the first instance. I simply let them use them and I left jobs with the terms that I would no longer support them after I was gone but they could continue to use them and develop them further if they so desired. I'm sure the law would say it then belongs to them, but I've always thought if it comes to it they are welcome to pay me for all the free time I have poured into the development of these things for my own use if you are saying you own them.

I have had people who left my previous employer turn up with my own personal spreadsheets and use them at another employer, much to the disgust of my employer at the time as they felt it gave them an advantage compared to their competitors. Initially I was ok with the fact that others were using these things, but considering some of the effort (hundred of hours) that went into some of my own tools and the fact that I was sometimes finding and correcting errors which they would not subsequently benefit from, I have since changed my mind on this aspect (liability comes into it, and also the older it gets it just pisses me off when someone I didn't respect walks off with my hard work). I have since this event taken active measures to protect my spreadsheets (they will not function unless certain parameters that are unique to a company network are present plus a whole raft of other protection measures to prevent/minimise reuse or adaption outside of my current employers environment).

I've also seen some of the companies I have peer reviewed designs for turn up with identical spreadsheets/CAD templates from other companies, because some guy left to form a new company and appear to have taken everything with them as a starting point.

I've also heard of one local architectural company that went after another local company for IP theft related to the use of the architectural companies Revit template (supposedly gained when an employee jumped ship).

RE: Ethical??

Yes, IP theft can increase innovation in the country doing the stealing, by the simple fact of them having enough money to do so. It's not possible for organic trade nor simple second-sourcing to provide the profits in-country to fuel innovation, since second-sources are usually low-margin operations.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

"...IP theft can increase innovation in the country doing the stealing, by the simple fact of them having enough money to do so."

So, you contend it's better that the thief gets the money, because, having started out being so lazy and dishonest as to steal someone else's work, they will suddenly become better innovators them the original innovator that they stole the IP from? I think I would rather the smart one that had the original idea, profit from the idea than the thief who stole it. Far better chance of the original innovator continuing to innovate, than the thief to turn a 180 and suddenly be interested in developing things on their own. Countries or individuals, innovators stay innovators, and thieves remain thieves.

RE: Ethical??

I'm inclined not to get too panty-twisted over IP protection, one of the better inventors I met (but I can't remember which one) said that the patent system is so comprehensively useless in any practical way other than lining lawyer's pockets, your best bet as an innovator was to take your good ideas further faster than the copiers. While they are reverse engineering your old stuff you are taking the lessons already learned and feeding it into your new stuff.

Cheers

Greg Locock


New here? Try reading these, they might help FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies http://eng-tips.com/market.cfm?

RE: Ethical??

"I think I would rather the smart one that had the original idea, profit from the idea than the thief who stole it."

That's like Lillienthal, who invented the JFET transistor, but without a semiconductor industry to manufacture it. So, he got a patent and a footnote in history.

Without infrastructure and investors and an accessible market, an invention is not particularly useful. Moreover, if there's no organic industry going on, how would you even think to invent something in the first place. I'm having trouble imagining people in Uganda coming up with a better flash memory chip design.

And, it's not necessarily the actual thief that gets ultimate benefit, but the people that work in the factories cranking out copies, the investors that make enough money to fund the next idea, the industries that sprout up to provide manufacturing equipment for the copycatters, etc. I'm not contending that this is "better" or moral; it's just an interpretation of history.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

IRStuff: if you are talking about economics and society, for sure it matters much who works in the factories etc. But we Eng-Tips members have a much better chance of being the next Lillienthal or Tesla than Musk or Edison.

RE: Ethical??

Before the world became interconnected the way it is, IP protection (patent laws) gave inventors in the US incentive to innovate, and the US advanced rapidly and became prosperous because of it. When the markets became global, and the protections of US patent law did not extend to China, etc., allowing the theft of IP. Innovation and advancement in the US slowed, and China got rich off the innovations of others. Technological advancement nearly stalled for several decades, as those who worked their butts off to create advancements watched others profit from them, and decided it was no longer worth the effort. That's my "interpretation of history".

RE: Ethical??

Employment is a two way street. As such, there are mutual benefits to the employer and employee.

The employer relies on your experience and expertise, and their reward is a profitable thriving business.

The employee provides his/her services to the employer, and in turn is rewarded with a paycheck and experience.
Experience is something that cannot be lost, once you have it.....you have it (good or bad).

Technical resources are merely a tool used during your experience.
Since we do not have photographic memories, we should not be forced to forfeit the benefits of our experience simply because we cannot remember the content of those resources.

That said, I believe you are entitled to only carry with you resources that you personally used and your last employer did not have to purchase.
(In other words, you can't help yourself to a free copy of an ACI publication when everyone else is paying $100 for it.....that's stealing. But it you want to make use of standards or details that worked
well on a project, then go ahead.)


RE: Ethical??

Things I think get kind of gray when it gets into stuff that is not patent-able or at least your former employer will think so when you are designing every project in the exact same way that you were taught and learned at your old company. There is a lot of stuff that carries over because it works. If I setup my breaker failure a certain way or build a panel a certain way, that isn't anything that is patentable but my former employer will be annoyed with me with them putting in the sweat to create it and me just walking out the door and using it as my own. In video game programs, there is a lot of code and routines that get used again if they were developed by the same developer. Congo Bongo has a whole bunch of routines that are the exact same as in Donkey Kong. John Carmack got in trouble at Occulous for blatently stealing code from a former employer but to me that is a little different. I worked at a relay manufacture that ridiculously protective of their main-tie-main relay logic even though it was a bloated mess that no field guy or engineer could ever quickly figure out. I don't know. If someone walking out with a general method of how to do something is a threat, how good were you at your job to begin with? Am I supposed to have my brain wiped clean when I walked out the door?

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.

RE: Ethical??

"Am I supposed to have my brain wiped clean when I walked out the door? "

No, but there are things that one simply does not reveal to future employers. For instance, if I have some classified information, by law, I keep those secrets to the grave. Doesn't require brain wiping, just straightforward compartmentalization.

Likewise, there are proprietary things that should be treated similarly, if for no other reason than to protect, or prevent embarrassment of, the guilty. In any case, if a company deems certain things to be their "secret sauce," so be it. If you find an alternate source of that secret sauce that can be documented and withstand legal scrutiny, then that's a different matter.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Ethical??

I get the sense from the original post that the OP is using content that he didn't develop and that there is no comparable technical resource at his current position.

There is a real danger in applying an existing solution to a new situation if the mechanics behind the existing solution are not understood

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