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Making an Indie Game Competing FullTime Studio Project Legal?

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Many full time game lovers have a side indie project. Where does the law restrict regarding for example a programmer working on Gears of War that wants to work on an indie game that is also building on the Unreal engine both aiming to release on Xbox? 1) Will there be a problem since the two projects are competing against each other? 2) Will it be different if the indie game project is aiming to release on a different platform for example iPhone or PS3? Regarding the visual aspect, can a full time concept artist working in Blizzard work on a indie PC game with a very similar art direction? And is there a difference if it releases on a different platform?

Thanks in advance for reading.

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1. Probably. What does your employment contract say? Have you discussed your side project with your employer? We've had numerous threads on the topic of conflict-of-interest and inventions clauses.
2. Maybe. Depending on what your employment contract says and what your employer says and what your employer's future platform plans are. You might want to read some of those other threads (there's a way to make the forum display older posts than just 30 or 60 days).

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Like Tom said, this depends entirely on what your work contract stipulates, and how that intersects with what the law allows in your state/country/what-have-you. Often times, these contracts are worded in a way which gives your employer, by default, very broad rights to any work you produce, regardless of whether the work was done "on your own time" and regardless of whether you had used any company resources. Basically, for the company its better to assert very broad rights and then simply choose whether or not they care on a case-by-case basis, rather than asserting specific and limited rights that might leave enough grey area that the courts would need to get involved if there were ever a dispute.

Now, just because its in a contract doesn't necessarily mean its enforcible -- certain states make a point to say that no employer can claim work produced independently by an employee on their own time, without company resources and without company IP or trade secret. Companies will often still include such language simply because they don't want to draw up different contracts for every region they operate in, though they're probably not unhappy if it discourages employees from branching out on their own. Point is, you need to know the laws of your region also, so if its a serious concern, consult a lawyer.

Most companies, I would say, though, aren't in the business of hassling their employees -- and if you find that your's is, perhaps you shouldn't be working for them. Keep in mind that your employment is a two-way negotiation. Too often people get so excited about the job offer that they forget they hold some bargaining power as well, so its a good time to get them to acknowledge pre-existing independent work in writing and to modify the language of the contract to allow you reasonable freedom. Of course, they're always free to say "Won't do it. Sign as is or leave." but they've already made a significant investment in finding you to be the right fit, so its in their best interest to work towards an amicable arrangement.

My own personal modus operandi is:
1) Don't sign anything that signs away rights to after-hours, out-of-house work -- actually, I'd be fine signing this away for the right salary, but we're probably talking something in the range of 150% or more of the standard salary before I'd consider.
2) *Never* work on the side project on company time. I try not even to think about it.
3) *Never* work on the side project using company resources (computers, applications, equipment, source code -- even if you wrote it).
4) *Never* compete with a recent or upcoming product from the company.
5) *Never* speak about it during work hours (basically, don't recruit co-workers or try to pick their brain about your problems on company time.) If its after hours, then fine.
6) Disclose the nature and status of your project as soon as you're reasonably sure its something you want to pursue seriously, but you don't have to disclose every prototype you start.
7) Accept that its reasonable for the company to request to review the game before you release it. Its part of the cost of doing business while also having the stability of regular work.
8) If you look for a publisher / funding, make sure your studio/publisher are in the loop and have first crack at your game -- this doesn't mean you have to take a low-ball offer from them, but a lot of potential problems disappear if you keep such things "in the family."

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