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Hackathons and the Challenge of Intellectual Property Rights

Google Lab Hackathon Photo by: Alistair

Hackathons are collaborative innovation events, which offer a great opportunity for highly motivated individuals with any professional background to come together to exchange ideas. These open spaces are a great contradiction to traditional setups. One key driver here is open source thinking – people sharing methods, data and ideas without obstacles, which works fine as long as it involves open source licensed material, but if intellectual property rights come to play, it can get critical.

It is important for those organizing hackathons to beware of the licenses of the data being used. A key point is to decided whether the data would be available only once or shared through an API in the future. This is decisive for the development of sustainable product solutions. Agreements on intellectual property rights among participants should be stipulated at the very start, or at the very least at some point throughout the project, so everyone knows what to expect. Fail to do so, and the possibility of future development might stay up in the air unless everyone comes to an agreement. There are a number of benefits and drawbacks to closed- and open-development models.

Closed Development Model

When you choose a closed-development model you ensure that only your team can profit from the ideas shared. In such case, hackathons are not the right place for such an approach as it contradicts its principle of openness. Typically, a closed-development model is best implemented within a company and not at public innovation events like hackathons. But the question is whether such a closed approach it is really necessary. In most cases the lack of implementation is what makes ideas fail and not the issue over intellectual property. Hackathons create a great atmosphere of excitement, but few projects are sustainable in the end.

One benefit of a closed-development model is that funding becomes easier and profits can be directed towards the ongoing maintenance and development of a project. However, closed-development requires a complicated bureaucratic process involving lawyers and lots of paperwork. Many projects are better off being developed under an open model.

Open Development Model

Open-source projects are accessible to anyone in the world with an urge to learn, collaborate and develop something. While it is possible to generate income with an open-development model, unfortunately it is still rare. Although, at the Open Knowledge Festival, I had the pleasure to witness some profitable projects such as Mapbox or

The most profitable projects are built around a core open source product; but even these could also include closed-source extensions to add essential functionality, or get revenue over an API.

Hackathons can be used as a first stage for idea generation and development of open source solutions. Later on, companies can build upon those open-source solutions by creating additional features using a closed-development model. The profits from the closed-source features can be used to fund further development on the open-source project. Other example is, which open source its whole platform and earns revenue through a great software as a service solution.

If you choose an open-development model, you can gather a community to collaborate on your project. However, if you do not clarify the question about intellectual property rights and licensing in the case of software, the project is likely to fall stagnant after the event. But intellectual property is only one of many important factors to drive a project after a hackathon. Foremost, such an event is a great place to exchange ideas and think out of the box with people you otherwise might not normally meet.