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OpenAI sends internal memo releasing former employees from NDAs

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OpenAI CEO Sam Altman speaks during the Microsoft Build conference at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, on May 21, 2024. 

Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

OpenAI on Thursday backtracked on a controversial decision to, in effect, make former employees choose between signing a non-disparagement agreement that would never expire, or keeping their vested equity in the company.

The internal memo, which was viewed by CNBC, was sent to former employees and shared with current ones.

The memo, addressed to each former employee, said that at the time of the person’s departure from OpenAI, “you may have been informed that you were required to execute a general release agreement that included a non-disparagement provision in order to retain the Vested Units [of equity].”

“Regardless of whether you executed the Agreement, we write to notify you that OpenAI has not canceled, and will not cancel, any Vested Units,” stated the memo, which was viewed by CNBC.

The memo said OpenAI will also not enforce any other non-disparagement or non-solicitation contract items that the employee may have signed.

“As we shared with employees, we are making important updates to our departure process,” an OpenAI spokesperson told CNBC in a statement.

“We have not and never will take away vested equity, even when people didn’t sign the departure documents. We’ll remove nondisparagement clauses from our standard departure paperwork, and we’ll release former employees from existing nondisparagement obligations unless the nondisparagement provision was mutual,” said the statement, adding that former employees would be informed of this as well.

“We’re incredibly sorry that we’re only changing this language now; it doesn’t reflect our values or the company we want to be,” the OpenAI spokesperson added.

Bloomberg first reported on the release from the non-disparagement provision. Vox first reported on the existence of the NDA provision.

The news comes amid mounting controversy for OpenAI over the past week or so.

On Monday — one week after OpenAI debuted a range of audio voices for ChatGPT — the company announced it would pull one of the viral chatbot’s voices named “Sky.”

OpenAI's chatbot voice in focus

“Sky” created controversy for resembling the voice of actress Scarlett Johansson in “Her,” a movie about artificial intelligence. The Hollywood star has alleged that OpenAI ripped off her voice even though she declined to let them use it.

“We’ve heard questions about how we chose the voices in ChatGPT, especially Sky,” the Microsoft-backed company posted on X. “We are working to pause the use of Sky while we address them.”

Also last week, OpenAI disbanded its team focused on the long-term risks of artificial intelligence just one year after the company announced the group, a person familiar with the situation confirmed to CNBC on Friday.

The person, who spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity, said some of the team members are being reassigned to multiple other teams within the company.

The news came days after both team leaders, OpenAI co-founder Ilya Sutskever and Jan Leike, announced their departures. Leike on Friday wrote that OpenAI’s “safety culture and processes have taken a backseat to shiny products.”

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, which was formed last year, has focused on “scientific and technical breakthroughs to steer and control AI systems much smarter than us.” At the time, OpenAI said it would commit 20% of its computing power to the initiative over four years.

The company did not provide a comment on the record and instead directed CNBC to co-founder and CEO Sam Altman’s recent post on X, where he shared that he was sad to see Leike leave and that the company had more work to do.

On Saturday, OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman posted a statement attributed to both himself and Altman on X, asserting that the company has “raised awareness of the risks and opportunities of AGI [artificial general intelligence] so that the world can better prepare for it.”

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