November 27, 2002

Who owns the invention?

Question: If an employee invents something in the course of her employment, is it the employer or the employee who owns the invention?

Answer: Many cases have held there is a common-law presumption the employee would own the invention which she invented. This presumption is subject to two exceptions: an express contract to the contrary or where she was employed for the express purpose of inventing or innovating.

In determining who owns the invention, courts have held the nature and context of the employer-employee relationship must be taken into consideration, including the following factors:

  • whether the employee was hired for the express purpose of inventing;
  • whether the employee at the time she was hired had previously made inventions;
  • whether an employer had incentive plans encouraging product development;
  • whether the conduct of the employee, once the invention had been created, suggested ownership was held by the employer;
  • whether the invention is the product of the problem the employee was instructed to solve (for example, was it her duty to make inventions?);
  • whether the employee’s invention arose following her consultation through normal company channels (for example, was help sought?); and
  • whether it was a term of her employment that she could not use the ideas which she developed to her own advantage.

Although there are significant references in the case law to the duty of good faith owed by a senior employee to her employer, the mere fact of holding a senior position does not disqualify an individual from claiming ownership rights over the invention.

Therefore, whether it is the employer or the employee who owns the invention will depend on the particular facts and context of the employment relationship. But employers should be aware that if they wish to avoid legal uncertainty in this area they can simply set out in the employment contract that any inventions created by the employee in the course of employment will belong to the employer.

Peter Israel is the senior partner in the Toronto law firm of Israel Foulon LLP – Employment and Labour Lawyers. He can be reached at 416-640-1550 or pi@israelfoulon.com. A version of this article originally appeared in the Carswell publication, Canadian Employment Law Today

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice, which in all circumstances must be tailored to the specific facts of any problem. You should obtain a proper legal consultation in order to determine how this article applies to your specific situation.
Please feel free to contact Israel Foulon LLP to learn more at 416-640-1550.

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