Developers · Hackathon

Hackathons and IP

Matty Sallin System Financial, Inc.

October 31st, 2013

I'm considering participating in my first Hackathon (Launch Hackathon in San Francisco on 11/8-10) and trying to assemble a team from strangers who've posted on the Hackathon discussion board (I'm looking for engineers, engineers are looking for a team, that kind of thing).

My goals: 
1. Meet some engineers who may want to work together (I'm a single, non-technical founder and not happy about it).
2. See if we can whip together a prototype of my application.

Given that I'd be working with people I don't have a history with, what should I do about intellectual property? Or are Hackathons supposed to be for either (A) Working with trusted friends on an idea you're passionate about or (B) Working with new people on an idea you're not married to? 

Is the answer some sort of Grunt Fund, or will that be a non-starter? 

John Sechrest

November 1st, 2013

In general, for Hackathons, Startup weekends and other Maker type events, the rule that I apply is: If you have something you value and want to keep control over, do not bring it to a public event. Bring things you are willing to share and things that you are ok with having them run off into the woods with someone else.

Jimmy Jacobson Full Stack Developer and Cofounder at

October 31st, 2013

What a great question.  Hackathons are about both A and B, but you can't really mix them.  If you are looking to join or form a team for the weekend then you should be flexible about what ideas you want to work on.  No one wants to implement someone else's idea at a hackathon, they want to collaborate.

Hackathons are great for identifying people you want to work with in the future. I would go with that in mind.  Try to make friends with some engineers and see where that goes.

Eduardo Hueso Independent iOS Engineer

October 31st, 2013

It's a good question.  It think the original spirit is that you are open to working with new people on an idea that your are passionate about. 

The way I see it is, being protective about an idea has its merits, but rarely are those merits greater than the benefits of being open, getting lots of feedback and giving others the opportunity of becoming passionate about your idea. 
In my mind, if you find a technical team who is passionate about your idea enough to spend a weekend helping build a prototype, that is invaluable, and if some of them are willing to continue afterwards then you hit the jackpot. The ones that don't continue, are not likely to go off and start a competing business.

After having done a few startup weekends I would say, the experience, the people you meet and the things you learn are more likely to be the greatest value you'll get out of it. Making concrete progress towards an idea you already came with would be a big bonus.

If you are serious about your idea, I think it is helpful to be clear upfront (Friday night) about your intentions in terms of equity. For example. I'll give 5% of the company distributed among the team members of this weekend based on their contributions. After the weekend is over, I will consider hiring a technical co-founder for 20-50% and a designer for salary plus stock options.  This is something you'd still want to do even if working with trusted friends.


Detrick DeBurr

October 31st, 2013

If its important that you solely retain  the I.P.,  then taking that idea to a hackathon may not be the best route. But then again if you can find people to build a MVP from your idea in a weekend then sharing IP (on some level) with them is probably the least you should do.  

Blake Caldwell

October 31st, 2013

In regards to IP, if you have not filed a provisional patent before hand, there is a good chance you will lose your rights to the IP forever. You can not file a patent for an idea that you have disclosed to the public...and a hackathon definitely falls under that criteria. Either figure out a way to do a hackathon without going into the patentable aspect of your idea or do a provisional. 

Better yet, listen to Jimmy Jacobson's advice, "Hackathons are great for identifying people you want to work with in the future," and go there to find what you are truly looking for, a team of engineers who you can partner up with so that in the future you can develop your idea.

Paul Travis Multifaceted Online Executor: Product Marketing to Program Mgmt. to Business Development

October 31st, 2013

To @Jimmy's point, I would throw in this contra data point.

After just participating in StartupWeekend, I intentionally pitched a concept which had a number of options so as to attract a team that would collaboratively flesh out a solution I hadn't imagined.  It surprised me that more people went for pitches that were much more clearly defined (which is what I'll do next time).

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

October 31st, 2013

Paul's experience is mine as well. You don't really want to meander for two days exploring ideas with some oddball you've never met before... unless the domain is extremely interesting to you. You want to be presenting something that works and that usually means that a more concrete and tractable idea is more attractive. There's plenty of opportunity to express creativity in implementation.

Steven Zeiler Software Architect at Ripple Labs

October 31st, 2013

Sorry I meant I would NOT bring your "IP" idea to a Hackathon

Tony Rajakumar Founder/CEO at SnugBoo

October 31st, 2013

If there's significant IP involved, then the optimum way to handle this would be not to go to a hackathon. 

If you haven't filed a provisional patent, then the idea is free for anyone to exploit once disclosed. It could be a fellow team member or some random person listening to your pitch. See the Snapchat founder dispute for how bad that can get.

Even if you did file a provisional or final patent, there could be interesting twists to your idea or some small technical thing that you hand't thought of beforehand but that is critical to making the idea work. And if someone else in your team realizes the importance of this cog before you do, they could then file a provisional on it after the event. You might not even realize till it's too late that your patent is now dependent on another patent. Sure it's a paranoid eventuality, but this is exactly what Zuckerberg is said to have done to the Winklevi twins.

In short, a hackathon is a fun event to maybe meet people, but not a place to develop your IP.