FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I read your column on whether (or when) non-compete agreements are negotiable, but I have a much weirder question. I just got a great job offer from a company where I’ve always wanted to work, but one thing is giving me pause. This makes me nervous because, for the past five or six years, I’ve been developing something in my spare time that I think has great commercial potential, and I’m getting close to applying for a patent. Does this agreement mean my employer owns my invention, even though it has nothing to do with my job? That just seems bizarre. Or am I reading this wrong? Dear L.L.G.: I’m sorry to report that you’re probably reading it just fine. Assignment contracts, also called preassignment agreements, are often buried in dense thickets of legalese in non-compete contracts, but since non-competes are illegal in California, you’ve been presented with the stand-alone version. Typically, it means you’re signing over the entire contents of your brain to your employer.

MORE: What can you learn from Mr. Efficient Markets now? “Assignment agreements used to be mostly confined to people specifically hired to create or invent, but not anymore,” Lobel says. The worst part, from your point of view, is that these contracts often stretch into the indefinite future. “Many of them contain a ‘trailer clause,’ which essentially means, ‘Even if you invent something years after you leave here, we will own it anyway,’” Lobel says. Outlandish as that seems, the agreements have teeth. Talent Wants to Be Free goes into some detail about what Lobel calls “strategic litigation,” where companies have sued former employees, especially those who quit to start their own businesses. Such lawsuits can be enough to kill a new company. “Even the threat of litigation is a big red flag to investors,” Lobel notes. Your situation does have one bright spot: You live in California. Along with several other states — including Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Washington, and North Carolina — the Golden State has passed laws putting a few limits on employers’ right to claim ownership of employees’ brainpower.

In particular, California courts have relied on the same statutes that ban non-compete agreements to overturn assignment contracts considered too restrictive or far-reaching. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to prove when something was invented, and that’s been a major point of contention in a few big lawsuits. So, to protect yourself in the event of legal action down the road, Lobel recommends that you keep meticulous records. “Document where you are in your project right now, meaning how much of it you completed before taking this job,” she says. “You can mail the information to yourself, so you have a postmark that shows the date. Or get your work product up to now notarized, so you have both the date and an impartial witness. “Then start a diary, keeping track of your hours so you can show that, after you were hired, you worked on your invention on your own time, evenings and weekends. MORE: No time for shopping? “To me, the issue is not companies vs. ’s companies vs. companies,” she adds. “It’s all about how businesses compete. After all, employers also have to recruit people, and they want the best employees they can get. So in the long run, these restrictive, inefficient contracts don’t help them either. In a few places, it’s already going that way. Even so, good luck. Talkback: Have you ever been asked to sign an assignment agreement? Leave a comment below.

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