Should sponsors own IP rights to hackathon outputs?

By Laurence Putra Franslay

Who owns the intellectual property of products borne out of hackathons and other similar collaborative efforts? Should it be the developers? The sponsor? The organizer?

A hackathon known as Hackit recently ran at NUS. The event was sponsored by Fox Two Pte Ltd (which surprisingly is not a registered company on ACRA [accurate as of December 21, 2012]), and organised by members of the SOC Student Leadership Programme. After interacting with some of the participants and winners, I was troubled to learn a couple of things. First, the number of prizes was reduced during the hackathon. Second, winners were informed only after they won that they had to license their IP rights to the product that they created to the sponsor in exchange for the prize money.

A short excerpt of the agreement is as below:

“I acknowledge that exclusively license the subject matter referred to as a AMTD HackIT App or FOX TWO HackIT App (all of the above collectively referred to as “Intellectual Property” for short) with fees free and royalty free to AMTD. In particular, I acknowledge that I do not have, have never had, and shall not claim to have, any royalties or other equitable or legal rights in any AMTD HackIT App Patent Application(s) worldwide and any subsequent patent applications and patents related to these patent applications.”

Having seen this, and having been a part of organising Hack & Roll earlier this year, which did not involve the participants giving us IP rights in exchange for the prize, I decided to ask my fellow Hackathon organisers to see if I was the odd one out in this. Turns out I’m not. According to Subh, one of the leaders of iOS Dev Scout, which had previously had a very successful hackathon, the IP rights of the various apps created by the participants of the hackathon belonged entirely to the participants.

He said, and I quote, “It’s their ideas, their effort and we just provide the platform. So there is no way we should own their IP. They are free to do whatever they want to do with their apps. We would love to encourage them to complete and release their apps on App Store.”

The interesting thing about Hackit was that no such details were given to the participants before the competition itself. A quick look at the event page showed no terms and conditions or whatever that participating developers were required to accept. It merely linked to a Google spreadsheet and that was it. A participant who preferred to remain anonymous commented that it felt like they were trying to build their product for a cheap fee.

Having been a hackathon organiser and the one liasing with the sponsors for that hackathon, as well as the organiser for GeekcampSG, I do understand that there are times when we have to meet sponsor’s requirements. After all, if they are sponsoring and we take their money, we do have an obligation to follow through with what we agreed on. But at the same time, while meeting their corporate goals, I believe we should at the same time not give up on the experience of our participants. This is a responsibility that I believe we as geek event organisers have. If the conditions are bad, we as organisers should just reject the money.

So the real question for today is this. Do you think such hackathons are ethical? Who owns the rights to the results of the hackathon? If the organisers have already had such a deal with the sponsors, when should they make the IP rights part clear?