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Startup Employment Agreements

Working with early-stage startups and game studios, we are often involved in key company decisions, such as a first hire.  Lately, with many of our clients growing their teams, we’ve been fielding questions concerning the scope of employment agreements.  Below are a few recommendations:

  1.  Consider a less strict intellectual property ownership clause.  From the outset, I must stress that the company needs to own employee work product.  However, there are different ways to define what constitutes “work product”.  The most contentious IP clauses grant the company ownership of everything created during employment, at home or at work.  These broad clauses are often at odds with the creative nature of the industry, where employees work on personal projects outside the office, which do not relate to the employer’s business.  For example, making indie games outside of working at a AAA studio.  Further, such broad clauses can drive away prospective employees.  While each company’s needs are different, a carefully crafted IP clause can ensure company ownership of work product while encouraging employee creativity in a manner that does not jeopardize such ownership.
  2. Non-compete clauses are useless (in many jurisdictions).  There seems to be an infatuation with non-compete clauses among early-stage founders, perhaps because there is a presumption that the clause will protect the company’s interests.  It won’t.  In many states (California, for example) non-compete clauses are unenforceable against employees (excluding senior management).   If you’re asking a junior dev. to sign a non-compete, it’s probably unenforceable.  If non-competes are enforceable in your jurisdiction, the clause must be carefully crafted – as a broad clause will be found unenforceable.   In my opinion, I always exclude non-compete clauses unless there is truly a reason for the clause and I believe there is a reasonable chance it will be enforceable.  In most cases, a standard confidentiality clause will provide the company sufficient protection.
  3. Law overrides employment terms.  Employees may be entitled to overtime, paid vacation etc., the terms of which are set by the laws of your jurisdiction.  As a result you, can’t force an employee to waive the rights to which they are legally entitled.  For example, an employee agreeing to be paid a flat wage when the employee is also entitled to overtime is not legal.  When hiring an employee, be sure that the employment terms are consistent with applicable laws.  When you start introducing startup employment trends (unlimited paid vacation, for example), further caution is needed to ensure that the trend reconciles with the legal requirements of your jurisdiction.  Tip:  speak with your legal counsel.

In addition to the above considerations, we recommend that you have your lawyer draft an employment agreement template that reflects your legal needs.  In doing so, you can address the above concerns and create an agreement that will serve your company needs as the team begins to grow.