Your Creative, Open Hackathon Is Ripe For Ownership Disputes

Scott Popma and Scott Allen | Wired | July 22, 2013

NASA’s Space Apps Challenge recently became the world’s largest open hackathon, with over 8,000 participants spanning 44 countries. Meanwhile, many of the features many of us use every day — sometimes more than once a day — such as Facebook’s Like button and Timeline, debuted at closed (internal, employee-only) hackathon events.

So it’s not surprising that the hackathon model — intense, contest-based software-coding marathons — has flourished. Not only do hackathons put companies’ new products on the map, they often score big returns for both the host company (which can monetize code) and for top hacker participants (who can win prizes).

But these cauldrons of collaborative creativity are not without their drawbacks. When a third-party, unpaid hackathon participant creates a lucrative new feature for a corporation, who actually owns it?

Typically, participants sign a “participant agreement” upon registration. These documents purport to insulate both host and participant from legal disputes surrounding IP rights. All too frequently, however, the agreements fail to provide meaningful legal protection.