The case was brought in April 1997 by DSC Communications (subsequently acquired by Alcatel), against employee Evan Brown, who had never committed his thoughts to paper during his time with the company.
The company argued that Brown, who had been working with DSC for 10 years, withheld his idea for software, in spite of a contract requiring him to disclose any inventions he conceived or developed in the course of his employment. In the lawsuit, the company sought possession of Brown’s thoughts.
Brown had conceived a method for converting machine-executable binary code into high-level source code that he developed, he claimed, in his own time and not in the course of his employment.
He told his employers that he had an idea that he wanted to pursue with his employers’ support – but he did not reveal what it was. DSC demanded that Brown disclose the idea, claiming that it owned the thought, even if it was not expressed in any tangible form at the time. When Brown refused to disclose it, he was fired and sued.
In July 2002, five and a half years after the action was raised, Alcatel prevailed. The Texas district court reasoned that Brown’s employment contract was valid and enforceable. Therefore his thoughts, which were characterised as “invention” in the decision, should be disclosed to Alcatel. The judge also ordered Brown to pay Alcatel’s legal fees, which exceeded $330,000.
Brown appealed, claiming that his idea had not been completely “made or conceived” by that time and therefore the terms of the employment contract did not apply. He also argued that the contract violated public policy, was ambiguous and unconscionable.
On 28th June this year the Court of Appeal in Texas rejected all these arguments, and upheld the validity of the employment contract. Alcatel, said the court, “owns full legal right, title and interest to the process and/or method” that forms Brown’s idea.
Brown’s lawyer has now filed a motion seeking a rehearing of the appeal.