Being a software developer it is very important to contribute to public projects and participate in public professional activities. This includes open source projects (which may belong to other companies or a developer himself), Stack Overflow answers, hackathons and other meetings, professional blog publishing, TopCoder contests participations, etc.

Moreover, links to GitHub and StackOverflow accounts have become a common item in IT resumes.

I'm going to work in Germany in a position of Software Developer. My employer tells me that EVERY professional activity belongs to the company and for EVERY activity I mentioned before I need to get written permission, which could be withdrawn at any moment. And it doesn't matter if I do it on my free time on my computer at home or not.

Citation from my contract:

(1) Der Mitarbeiter darf ohne Zustimmung von COMPANY_NAME keine gewerbsmäßigen ader nicht gewerbsmäßigen fort dauernden oder gelegentlichen Konkurrenz Geschäfte für eigene oder fremde Rechnung unmittelbar oder mittel- bar betreiben oder sich daran beteiligen oder solche Dienste in irgendeiner Art oder Form leisten. Das gleiche gilt für jede Art der Beteiligung an einer anderen Firma sowie für die Mitwirkung in Organen einer anderen Gesellschaft, es sei denn, es handelt sich um die Beteiligung an einer börsennotierten Gesellschaft bis zu einem Umfang von 5 %, solange mit dieser kein Stimmrecht einhergeht.

(2) Gewerbsmäßige Nebentätigkeiten bedürfen der schriftlichen Genehmigung von COMPANY_NAME. COMPANY_NAME kann die Genehmigung jederzeit widerrufen, wenn seine Interessen durch diese berührt werden

(3) Zu Veröffentlichungen und Vortragen bedarf es der Einwilligung von COMPANY_NAME, wenn dadurch seine Interessen berührt werden können.

I find it a little bit weird to get written permission from employer to write an answer on Stack Overflow or to participate in development of open source game with friends in my spare time.

But my employers tells me this is OK. Moreover, they're trying to convince me that clauses above are pretty standard for Germany and exist in almost every contract with any company.

So the question: is it really so strict in Germany? What is the most legal way to participate in public activities in such situation?

PS I fully understand that answers are not official legal advice, so feel free to share opinion.

  • It is probably true that these clauses are standard in German contracts. The question, of course, is the extent to which they are enforceable. Another question is, if it is in fact legal for your employer to require you to have its permission before you can engage in certain activities on your own time, is it legal for the employer to withhold that permission unreasonably?
    – phoog
    Aug 15, 2018 at 12:40
  • 1
    @phoog: AFAIK it is legal for the employer to require the employee to ask for permission, but the employee has a right to get that permission unless the employer can give good reasons against that. Aug 15, 2018 at 17:34

3 Answers 3


(IANAL, of course)

 My employer tells me that EVERY professional activity belongs to the company and for EVERY activity I mentioned before I need to get written permission,

That's true for software (and inventions) that may be relevant for them, but not for other professional activities.

which could be withdrawn at any moment.

No, not in that very general sense.

  • they can give the permission to publish possibly relevant pieces of code on SX, and they can withdraw that permission for the future. But they cannot take it back for the past.

  • Once they tell you they don't want your invention, there's no way back from that decision (and there are legal deadlines for claiming relevance).

  • Even if they require written permission for you to take a side job, they must give it unless they can show a valid reason against you taking the side job in question. And that would be a per-side-job decision.

 And it doesn't matter if I do it on my free time on my computer at home or not.

That is indeed the case for copyright of software and for inventions.

  1. clause is to protect your employer from you helping anyone who is their competitor/you being their competitor while the employment lasts. This is pretty standard and, I believe, not only legal but would be the case also if they had not spelled out this to you. The lines between what is and what is not competition are sometimes a bit complicated*
    So, if your employer specializes in subway station surveillance systems and you work on face recognition and then help out your local pigeon breeder's association by implementing automatic door opening by camera + automated face recognition of the [unwinged] members that's close enough to touching the interests of your employer that I'd consider it off-limits unless you had talked to your employer and they are happy with this project (after all, they could be preparing similar products unknown to you).
    OTOH, overhauling the crappy Excel macros for the regional annual breeder's competition would be fine. And in general, the lower your position there and the further from the actual focus of the company, the more normal it is to have another job (think janitors, canteen staff of a software company as opposed to a janitor in a hire-a-janitor-service company)

    The general duty not be in competition with your employer also in general prevents you from being involved in a competitor business to the extent that you have noticable influence over that competitor. So the second part of clause 1 shouldn't be too surprising, neither.
    (update) OTOH, what may make this particular clause invalid is the requirement also for publicly traded shares that they cannot come with voting rights. I somehow suspect that thus prohibiting you from "normal person small scale ownership" of publicly traded stocks (not all of them even have non-voting shares) is undue and invalid (too broad a restriction). However, if that clause is invalid the legal default of "no competition to employer" still applies.

  2. Unlike the 1st clause, this is AFAIK not a spelled out default of German employment law, but it may be a spelled out version of a Tarifvertrag (unionized group contract). In any case it is probably legal to have this clause in the contract. The point is that the employer can only forbid the side job if it is against their reasonable interests, a general "no side jobs whatsoever" would be invalid.
    Side note: they may even be of the opinion that employment law forces them to have some such clause: the employer has a legal responsibility to ensure that you are not working more than the number of hours allowed by law. I've had such a permission that stated the constraint that the permission is valid only as long as I ensure that I stay within those legal limits and my working ability for employer is not compromised.

    But for creative works other than software such as plans how to implement features, technical drawings, etc. working hours or not seems to be more important for assigning the rights and the rules seem to be more similar to employee invention law ArbnErfG): if it is outside working hours and possibly relevant for the employer, the employee has to offer it to the employer before trying to sell to someone else.
    The clause that employer must give permission to publication of content that is possibly relevant for them seems to me to be in line with these general rules.

* I've been advised in a situation where I still believe I was not competing, and even had a written permission, that this is the stuff that makes lawyers rich, and both employee and employer poor....

Take home message: even if you believe to legally have the right to publish on SX/contribute to an open source project, think again whether you'd want this to be the source of a conflict with your employer - or whether there isn't a win-win possibility that makes everyone happy instead.

What is the most legal way to participate in public activities in such situation?

I'd advise to be open about what public activities you'd like follow. Whatever the contract says, your employer can always give your more permissions.

In the past, I've found the majority of employers being happy to see me contributing (some had similar clauses to yours and just wanted to know, some was happy about an open source project I brought, some like to be able to say where their employees volounteer, etc.).

Although there was one who wasn't (and that did contribute to my decision to leave there). From that experience, I'd personally discuss this early on now: in case the employer turns out to be too intrusive (speak to Betriebsrat or lawyer or your union if you have one to make sure they really overstep their rights) for my liking, for me that would be a reason to cancel the contract which is easier & faster during probation period.


tl;dr As long as you're talking about unpaid activities in your free time not involving company know-how, you'll be fine.

I think you're confusing "professional activities" with "activities related to your profession".

In a nutshell, your contract says that you can not do paid work (as salaried employee, contractor etc.) for other companies or be a major shareholder of a company without the express permission of your employer.

The rationale for these clauses is that your employer wants you a) to devote your limited working capacity only to your main job instead of, say, working night shifts coding as a contractor and coming into work tired the next morning and b) to avoid conflict of interest (knowledge transfer to competitors etc.). Your employer is right about the clauses being standard; similar paragraphs are part of every working contract I've seen in Germany, regardless of industry.

I believe that none of the activities you mentioned (contributing to OSS, answering here on SO, contests, blog publishing, meetings) need permission from your employer as long as they do not involve very specific technical knowledge relevant to your job or your employer's intellectual property.

I would be very surprised if your employer actually told you that "EVERY activity [you] mentioned before" needs written permission, especially since your list of activities includes "etc.". If in doubt, speak to your employee organization ("Betriebsrat"), your union, or an employment law expert.

On an unrelated note, I don't believe that "it is very important to contribute into public projects and participate in public professional activities" for your career as a software developer, at least in Germany. In my experience, what employers really want to see is professional experience gained in a paid position.

  • This analysis seems fine in general, but are you familiar with German law? Many aspects of German law are surprising to those familiar with other systems, so I am inclined to suspect the accuracy of any answer that doesn't address German law specifically.
    – phoog
    Aug 15, 2018 at 12:43
  • 2
    I am as familiar with German law as the average German software developer and this answer does address German law specifically, but of course IANAL. Aug 15, 2018 at 12:46
  • In that case I will upvote your answer.
    – phoog
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:01
  • 2
    (±0) -1: at least the summary advise is IMHO (German, developer, IANAL, but had occasion to read up on these issues) not very good advise. The particular difficulty comes from the fact that German copyright law transfering rights to the employer does not end with working hours, and there are court decisions saying that code written at home outside working hours can belong to the employer. Unpaid doesn't change anything, neither. (+1) for the advise to talk to Betriebsrat and the hints that these clauses after all may not be as bad as they seem at first reading. Aug 15, 2018 at 17:00

is it really so strict in Germany? What is the most legal way to participate in public activities in such situation?

First of all, no employer will admit to you that his contract violates the law. From 2007 to 2012, my former employer (an IT intermediary from India) in Michigan, USA, subjected me to a certain oppressive condition. It was in year 2013 when I realized that Michigan statutory law prohibits employers to impose on their employees that condition, whence this employer/intermediary had no option but to remove that clause from the contract.

Second, I am neither familiar with German law nor with how German courts have interpreted similar clauses. The basis of what follows is my understanding of the excerpt you reproduce (please note that German is not my first language).

The language of the contract is not as prohibitive as your employer portrays to you. Item (1) means that the employee needs the company's permission to:

  • Conduct any activity (professional or otherwise, directly or indirectly) for the benefit of a competitor (here the key term is Konkurrenz Geschäfte); or
  • Acquire or possess shares of other companies (up to a limit of 5%), provided that these shares do not give the holder any voting rights. The nature of the 2nd sentence implies that here Beteiligung refers to shares/stocks, rather than the more general meaning of beteiligen. (Side comment: The 5% limitation seems poorly drafted because --unless I am misreading-- it means that, if the employee acquires more than 5% of a firm, then employer's permission is no longer required).

Unless GitHub, Stackoverflow, etc. are your employer's competitors (which is neither likely nor reflected in your inquiry), the language in item (1) does not prohibit you to participate in those platforms or forums. The clause would be applicable if the nature and detail of your contributions elsewhere in those forums realistically entails a risk whereby (i) a competitor may gain a concrete advantage over your employer, or (ii) constitute theft of intellectual property or disclosure of trade secrets.

Likewise, item (3) only requires approval by the company if your publication/lecture/presentation touches on the interests of your employer.

  • While in general I agree to "no employer will admit to you that his contract violates the law" (I've seen lots of employment contract clauses that I believe to be invalid) the clauses here are narrow enough that they IMHO may be valid as they are. The typical point that invalidates such clauses is that they are too general - the clauses here are careful to qualify the restrictions to situations that are relevant to the employer. BTW I read the Beteiligung as more general than you do - not restricted to shares/stock, but also covering e.g. freelancing/sole proprietorships etc. Aug 15, 2018 at 19:01
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    @cbeleites I agree with your comment. My initial statement is in the sense that an employer will not tell the employee "Sign this contract notwithstanding that it contains unlawful clause(s)". Nowhere I suggest that the excerpt reproduced in OP's inquiry is invalid; only the employer's verbal explanation of the scope of restrictions is inaccurate, exaggerated. As for Beteiligung, my point is that it refers only to notions of the OP's ownership (regardless of its technical modality) of that other firm, rather than a prohibition to participate --for instance-- in surveys, contests, etc. Aug 15, 2018 at 19:25
  • Ah, yes. The good thing about those invalid clauses is that in an employment contract you can sign over here without danger: they are simply invalid, because mass contracts have strict regulations. Participation in surveys: I hadn't thought about this, German grammar is clear here that only ownership and influential positions are prohibited. Aug 16, 2018 at 6:12

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