my friend wrote a novel at work – should I tell our employer?

A reader writes:

I have a friend and coworker who is a gifted writer. She finished her first novel earlier this year and a publisher has offered her an advance that will let her quit our boring job and write full-time, which has always been her dream. I’m happy for her but morally uneasy knowing that at least 90% of the book was written while she was on the clock. She has small children and a home business and has admitted she doesn’t have any other time to write. I would hate to destroy her dream but it also feels wrong that our company may be being cheated out of a financial interest in what could turn into a big thing. Should I inform our supervisor or not?

No. Assuming that writing books is outside of the scope of the work that her employer hired her to do for them, and assuming that the book isn’t something that the employer could use in the scope of the work they do (which it’s presumably not, since it’s a novel), I don’t see how they’re entitled to a financial interest in her book, no matter when she wrote it.

Your employer is responsible for holding your coworker accountable for whatever work they want her to do while she’s on the job. So either she was able to get all her work done to their satisfaction and work on the book in the time that remained, or they dropped the ball on managing her in a massive way.

U.S. copyright law does include a “work made for hire” provision, which says that the employer is the author and owner of work prepared by an employee within the scope of her employment — but a novel is presumably significantly outside the scope of her employment.

It’s also worth noting that some companies do have employees sign contracts that state that they’ll own any work that was produced while the employee was working for them (in some cases, even if that work was produced at home, outside of work hours). And if your coworker has such a contract, she’ll need to deal with that reality — but even then, it’s typical for a company to only exercise that right if the work developed is related to their business — which, again, doesn’t sound like the situation here.

But even if none of that were the case, the whole situation would be between her and the company; there’s no reason for you to insert yourself in the middle of it.

And for what it’s worth, if you’re concerned about how your friend spent her time at work, you should be concerned about that regardless of whether her book was getting published. The publication isn’t really the issue here — her behavior on the job is, and you should have the same concern if she had spent that time playing on Facebook and watching videos of baby monkeys. But unless she went out of her way to actively deceive your employer about how she was spending her time, this is the kind of thing that should be spotted by competent management — or possibly was fine with them if she was getting her work done.

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