Should sponsors own IP rights to hackathon outputs?


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?

Laurence Putra Franslay

Laurence is a hacker who organises the region's largest all geek event, GeekcampSG, and is particularly passionate in the fields of Distributed Systems and Computer Security. In his free time, he hacks out tools to solve his personal pain points, including Instasyncer. More about him over at

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  • Erwan MACE


    I have myself sponsored and organised quite a few hackathons while working at Google and I haven’t come across such cases where the sponsor (or even the organizer) would request to own the IP rights.

    When getting involved in hackathons, sponsors usually seek bigger objectives such as marketing/visibility, recruitment, or simply nurturing the ecosystem and establishing early relationships with developers.

  • Roland Turner

    (This is not a legal opinion or legal advice, obviously.)

    Rights should of course stay with the people who created the works, hackathons are not a cheap work-for-hire arrangement. Whether the participants agree to *license* their creations publicly under CC/OSS licenses is an open question (typically: “yes”) as is to waive any patent claims (typically: “yes”).

    Offering prizes is presumably subject to relevant lotteries/gaming law in Singapore; I’d be surprised if pulling prizes after the fact was legal.

    Requiring an assignment of rights after the work is done and a winner announced but before handing over the prize is renegging, should be refused, and refusal in this case doesn’t affect the winner’s entitlement to the prize. The prizes in question are too small to warrant legal action, but NUS leadership might wish to consider appropriate action as their name was used to promote this, apparently with consent.

  • Kristiono Setyadi

    Involved in many hackathon and following the news (while learning) hackathon in the Valley (and almost everywhere), I think it’s a weird idea to involved IP rights in exchange to the prizes. Giant tech companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook will not do that. Instead, they encourage developers to do the best and just going on with their ideas. If, in some cases, the company likes the idea, I think they will go further by recruiting the promising team (I haven’t find such a case where company bought the idea from participants. Please do let me know if any).

    There should be such a case, of course, where the product built by participants was become the IP right for the company, i.e internal hackathon held by the company for their employees, but we’re not talking about this.

    In my view as a participant, a hackathon is simply a creative yet challenging event limited by time (usually 24 hours or a little more) building a working app/prototype as its main objective. The food, the crowd, the spirit, the environment, and similarity in interest are bonus points. We like to build things and be challenged. At the end of the day, we like to see other’s innovation and creation and celebrate the hacker culture we all have.

    We never think (at least, never really serious thinking) about IP rights in the first place when we decided to join the hackathon. Never.

  • Sau Sheong

    The agreement is probably not legit anyway. Failed the few basic criteria for a legit contract — that the parties need to be in agreement that there’s a contract before the fact, and that there’s no consideration given in exchange for the IP. The prizes are PRIZES and not consideration. I’m not a lawyer though.

  • rampok

    Having organized a few hackathons myself, I do encounter a few sponsors who thinks hackathon as a cheap way to build apps. They think it’s more like a freelance work, only faster and cheaper. This, of course, will ruin the very essence of a hackathon.

    Of course, we always explain to sponsors that the apps built during the hackathon will remain under the participant’s ownership. I think as an organizer, these kind of settlement needs to be communicated to all sponsors and participants.

  • brian

    This is an interesting debate.

    I think there’s a general consensus (and rightly so) that all IP should belong to the hacker.

    As an amateur musician, I would be equally perturbed if I took part in a songwriting contest and find out that if I’d won, or taken part in the contest, I suddenly signed over my IP rights to the organizer or sponsor.

    I think it’s pretty clear that an organizer has no legal right to sell something that doesn’t belong to them.. unless there is a clause that says by taking part in a contest / hackathon / etc.. You’ve signed your rights over to them.

    I may not be a lawyer, but I think such a clause is hardly legal.. is it? (Any lawyers care to add to this discussion?)

  • Darius Cheung

    Seriously? GTFO Fox Two.

  • Han Boon Kiat

    it’s surprising there is even a doubt to the ownership.
    The sponsors are sponsors of the event, not of the developer.

    Should the developer be duped into signing away his claim to the 1-2 day old product by an event organizer, and the event organizers have the gall to stake a claim
    as a community, we should expose this trickery and take the errant (usually juvenile) organizers from SoC as high up as need be.

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