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The Risks of Entering Programming Contests 154

Posted by Soulskill
from the no-such-thing-as-a-free-lunch dept.
snydeq writes "Fatal Exception's Neil McAllister warns developers of the hidden risks of entering programming competitions, which are on the rise since NetFlix awarded $1 million to BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos in 2009. 'Web and software companies offer prizes for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is simply to raise awareness, interest, and participation in a given software platform or service,' McAllister writes. But the practice of offering and entering software prizes is not without concerns. Privacy implications, class-action lawsuits — many of the prizes leave participants vulnerable to prosecution. Worse is the possibility of handing hard work over to a company without reward. 'Contests like the Netflix Prize are sponsored by commercial entities that stand to profit from the innovations produced by the entrants. Those who participate invest valuable time toward winning the prize, but if they fail to meet the deadline (or to produce the leading results) their efforts could go completely unrewarded. Depending on the terms of the contest, however, the sponsor might still be able to make use of the runners-up's innovations — which, of course, would be a whole lot cheaper than hiring developers.'"
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The Risks of Entering Programming Contests

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  • GPL (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:29PM (#33243730)

    GPL your entry.

    • Re:GPL (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:31PM (#33243770)

      That will most likely disqualify you based on the terms of the competition which usually contains clauses about them being able to use your work or some sort of copyright transfer.

      • Re:GPL (Score:4, Informative)

        by 0racle (667029) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:37PM (#33243870)
        The GPL does not preclude that, though it would still most likely disqualify you from competition anyway.
        • by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:40PM (#33243922)

          Since they are usually using these contests as R&D for proprietary products, yes it would. That is why they usually also ask for copyright transfers.

          • by tigre (178245) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:07PM (#33244276)

            IANAL, but if you transfer the copyright, they are free to reuse without a license so the version you transfer can still be used by anyone under the GPL, but they are free to modify as needed without any "viral infection". All the same, it would probably still be unacceptable to the lawyers drafting the rules.

            • Re:GPL (Score:3, Informative)

              by reebmmm (939463) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:33PM (#33244626)

              I am a lawyer, but not your lawyer. It seems to me that order would matter.

              If you assign your copyright first, then there is no GPL issue. The GPL simply wouldn't apply. The assignee (i.e., the new owner) did not need the license to use the software. And even if GPL did apply, they are under no obligation to continue distributing it and you have given up your right to do so (e.g., you sold all your rights to them).

              If you make a GPL transfer first, and the assign second, you could have a copy of the software that could subsequently be transfered under the GPL. The real obvious issue is that a properly prepared assignment reps against this scenario. You are likely going to be in breach of the assignment.

    • by Dunbal (464142) * on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:50PM (#33244862)

      And be immediately disqualified.

  • Pardonez-moi (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MrEricSir (398214) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:31PM (#33243758) Homepage

    But aren't these risks, for the most part, kind of obvious? It's sort of like saying your employer might exploit you for free labor from your unpaid internship. Duh!

    • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:34PM (#33243820)

      I for one was shocked to find out that if I entered a contest, there was a possibility I might not win. My mom always told me I would succeed at whatever I tried. Does this mean that I might not get $75 million dollars for the lottery ticket I bought this morning? I wish someone had told me that before I quit my job.

      • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:3, Informative)

        by Imrik (148191) on Friday August 13, 2010 @08:03PM (#33247446) Homepage

        It's not the fact that you might not win, it's that they can still use your entry (without paying you for it) if you don't.

        • by CastrTroy (595695) on Saturday August 14, 2010 @12:30PM (#33251212) Homepage
          So what. You don't get your lottery ticket money back when you lose. You enter a sports tournament and don't win, you don't get your money back. They still get your entrance fee. They still get to keep all the money from the spectators who paid to see you. As long as the contest wasn't rigged, I don't see where the problem is. That's the point of a contest. A bunch of people complete, for no reason at all, except to see who is the best. The winners get prizes. The losers get nothing. The people holding the contest make a bunch of money, or in the case of a programming contest, get a bunch of free work. It's like saying, don't enter the golf tournament, because if you don't win, you lose the entry fee, and you wasted all your time golfing. And the golf course may have made money from people paying to see you play. People enter these contests because they enjoy programming, and enjoy the challenge. They are probably so popular because even a lot of the good programmers are stuck doing boring programming because it pays well. So once in a while, they like to go out and do some interesting programming for fun.
    • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:5, Insightful)

      by biobogonics (513416) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:48PM (#33244034)

      But aren't these risks, for the most part, kind of obvious? It's sort of like saying your employer might exploit you for free labor from your unpaid internship. Duh!

      How is this situation different from any other so called "talent" contest? Look at the dancers who did not win on "So You Think You Can Dance?". It's the same reason for the spread of "reality" TV. These shows are inexpensive to produce - just like game shows were.

      • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:3, Interesting)

        by sohp (22984) <> on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:13PM (#33245198) Homepage

        There a many corporate-sponsored contests like this photography, mostly geared at amateurs. Back in the 80s I learned to look at the terms carefully, and if anywhere in them was a clause giving up rights to the photographs entered to the contest-holder, to run far away. Prestigious contests always make it clear that all rights remain with the photographer, although they may legitimately request a time-limited right to display entries for promotional purposes only, not for resale ever.

        Stock agencies used to use these contests to pick up vast swaths of decent, if unremarkable, photographs for almost nothing, and with no pesky trouble like having to keep track of who took the photo for credit and payment. I imagine now with Flickr and the flood of digital images, they don't really have work even that hard.

        All this remains true for programming contests, and really any contest where the creative work of an individual is made available to another party.

      • by squidfood (149212) on Friday August 13, 2010 @05:20PM (#33246032)

        How is this situation different from any other so called "talent" contest?

        If the organizer recorded your performance in the talent contest, then made a #1 single out of it without paying you, that's the problem. Not that it's not wholly legal if the participants agree beforehand to sign away their performance, but it could be a scummy business practice and worth looking out for. Which is all the article is saying, really.

        On the other hand, if your performance brought you fame (or in computing, a bright spot on your resume) that might be a reasonable exchange.

    • by atomicxblue (1077017) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:51PM (#33244084)
      Yeah, I was thinking that same way. Granted there are businesses who will try to take advantage of people, not all of them are like that. I'm sorry, but I just can't be as fatalistic as the author. :D
    • Re:Pardonez-moi (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Rivalz (1431453) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:02PM (#33244220)

      Yes I often go to various companies I intend to work for. Offer them each to pay me in advanced for the chance I might choose to work for them.
      I of course will not refund the money as they had the privilege of competing for me to select them for my place of employment.
      The problem with my argument is no one in their right mind would agree to it.
      So why agree to a contest on the off chance you are one of two things (Extremely over qualified / talented enough to beat everyone else) or (Not doing it for the money and would do it anyhow).
      Chances are you want to know you are the best but really you arent. You are just the best of a group of people who want to prove they are the best or looking to get lucky.

    • by ShakaUVM (157947) on Saturday August 14, 2010 @02:59AM (#33249340) Homepage Journal

      >>But aren't these risks, for the most part, kind of obvious?

      Yeah. I think everyone that entered the Netflix contest knew, pretty upfront, that Netflix was interested in ideas people would be coming up with, and that nobody would get compensated except the first team to reach the target.

      TFA, methinks, is one of those anti-capitalist types that hates anything, whatsoever, to do with helping a company that actually makes money.

      I was listening to Pacifica Communist Radio yesterday, and they were protesting a $500M alternative fuels institute forming at Berkeley because, *gasp*, the company funding it would get first look at all the patents to come out of it. How dare the company not put up the money up front and demand nothing in exchange!

    • If you are a computer science intern and not at least making 2x minimum wage, you are most certainly getting ripped off. Perhaps getting paid less than the full-time professionals, but still you should be getting paid a pretty healthy wage none the less and certainly more than working at a burger flipper job.

      An "unpaid computer science intern"? I hope you are getting other benefits such as a major scholarship or a nearly guaranteed job afterward, or some significant political connections for doing that kind of work.

      There are some industries where the competition for jobs is so fierce that the only way to get any sort of experience at all is to have an unpaid internship first. The entertainment industries (radio & television) come to mind here, but not computer science or for that matter most other engineering specialties. If a company asks you to do an unpaid internship, make sure that they know they will get what they pay for too.

  • by Joe The Dragon (967727) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:32PM (#33243782)

    what about pre / in interview code samples or probation period coding?

    what stop them from firing you right at the end of the probation period and getting free work.

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:34PM (#33243810) Homepage

    "...prizes leave participants vulnerable to prosecution." I don't see any in the article.

    • Indeed. "That word you keep using, I do not think it means what you think it means."

      Prosecution means a criminal complaint against you. You might be able to be named in a Civil suit, but i don't see how you can be arrested for writing code.
    • by pclminion (145572) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:53PM (#33244926)

      I can think of at least one. Contestant writes code which is scary-good at predicting your taste in movies, music, beer, and loose women. Company takes your solution and implements it. Some fiasco occurs, a bunch of private data is compromised, and somebody gets outed as being a homosexual (or something). Pissed off person tries to sue company. They probably fail because the company has a zillion dollars. Person is still pissed, tries to go after someone else. Person goes after the original author of the code which detected that he was a homosexual. Person sues you directly.

      Don't think it can happen? I've experienced it (though not in the above form, exactly).

    • by stephanruby (542433) on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:43PM (#33245592)

      This one is no biggie for me. I've been participating in so many contests, I'm sort of judgement-proof by this point. ;)

      On a more serious note, Neil McAllister seems to only see the computer programming field as a zero-sum game. The computer programming that someone does for free (for whatever reason: learning, camaraderie, ego, prizes, resume-padding, or whatever) is not necessarily just lost revenue/income for the labor market of programmers.

      For instance once upon a time, before the advent of Microsoft Word (and even before Wordperfect), there were many Word Processing packages available. Those initial Word Processing packages were very difficult to set up, difficult to use, and there were so many to choose from, companies needed to hire expensive Word Processing specialized consultants just to try to figure it all out.

      Obviously with the advent of Wordperfect (and later Word), all those consulting gigs simply disappeared, but it doesn't mean that with the consolidation of that niche industry and the loss of those particular gigs -- that the IT consulting job market disappeared too (on the contrary). This consolidation did raise the bar for consultants (who did have to retrain themselves into learning other newer technologies), but it also raised the standard of living for the rest of us.

      And if Neil McCallister wants to fight that, that's fine with me, just don't expect me to play along. I'll still keep on participating in programming contests/hackathons if I want to (the good ones anyway, I'm not saying that all programming contests are good, because you do have to read all the fine prints, speak to your friends about all the catches/if any, and ask plenty of questions, before you even begin to invest any of your time and energy).

  • by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:36PM (#33243854)

    Those who participate invest valuable time toward winning the prize, but if they fail to meet the deadline (or to produce the leading results) their efforts could go completely unrewarded.

    Boohoo? Why should you be rewarded if you can't even meet the deadlines of the contest or producing subpar results compared to others?

    • by Anonymous Cowpat (788193) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:03PM (#33244232) Journal

      because you 'win' in as far as you produce the stuff that the people putting the prize up want (if they use your stuff), but don't 'win' in as far as actually getting a prize. I don't think it's unreasonable for losing entrants to expect that their entry won't be subsequently used by the promoter - if it wasn't good enough to win the prize, how is it still good enough to use?

      Think of it like an auction, I bid $1m, you bid $1.1m: we don't then each pay the sum we bid, but only you get the item. This is similar but in reverse; the buying price is $1m, and we 'bid' to see who can produce the best software for that much money; but why should the person offering to buy then get both products, and only pay the producer of the better one?
      That would strike me as a fair way for these competitons to work, but people will continue to be fleeced while a sufficient number of people keep entering competitions on wholely unfair terms.

      If you didn't produce the best entry, or entered late, didn't win and that was the end of it, that would be fair enough; but keeping and using entries which didn't win just seems a bit off.

  • by atomicxblue (1077017) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:38PM (#33243892)
    If the runners-up are not selected, it isn't a complete loss as they had a valuable programming experience.
  • by catbutt (469582) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:39PM (#33243904)
    I think it's only fair to point out that the terms of the netflix contest (which I participated in and got a lot out of) are such that you own everything you produce. I think you may have to licence it to netflix if you win and take the $million, but if so it is non-exclusive.
  • Drama (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Voulnet (1630793) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:40PM (#33243914)
    Let's not make a big corporate drama over everything. Every programmer that enters a contest knows (or should know) that his work may go unrewarded AND into the hands of the contest arrangement panel. If the programmer has enough free time to make something really great for a contest, then he's already a big name or capable of making lots of money and great projects, so somebody making use of his contest entry should be but a little blip on his radar; if his contest entry was that great then he surely can go big time.
  • Risks are everywhere (Score:1, Informative)

    by Palmsie (1550787) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:42PM (#33243944)
    These types of risks aren't inherent in devoting time merely to a contest, they're everywhere. You're at risk of unveiling your ideas at soon as you sit down for the interview and answer the question, "so why should we hire you?". You may have a great idea, spill the beans, and then not get the job only to see the company adopt your idea. Similarly, whose to say that when you implement a new idea in a company that they don't fire you and hire someone else once the system is implanted. While these are unlikely events they're similar types of risks and they're everywhere.
    • by pclminion (145572) on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:00PM (#33245020)

      This type of paranoid thinking is typical among people with technical skill. The reality is, ideas are a dime a dozen. Even good ideas. Implementing ideas, i.e. getting them to work and then successfully marketing them and making money with those ideas, is orders of magnitude more difficult.

      It's a very rare that an idea is so brilliant, so simple, and full of so much potential, that a company could actually "steal" your idea from you and defeat you in the marketplace based on a 15 minute conversation. Seriously, you ain't that smart. No, really.

      At any rate, the ideas that make the most money often don't seem to be that valuable on first glance. People aren't really listening to you that closely in the first place.

  • by The Living Fractal (162153) <> on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:44PM (#33243978) Homepage
    So you're tellin me that 15 years ago when I edited my colleague's autoexec.bat file into a loop that repeated "I AM A GIANT CAWK MAGNET" endlessly... I was at risk of prosecution?! Damn, barely made it!
  • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Friday August 13, 2010 @02:54PM (#33244118)
    The alternative to a competition is what, a request for tender, a bunch of responses from big corporations. At least the competition gives me as an individual a reasonable way to compete.
  • by nedlohs (1335013) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:02PM (#33244218)

    Obviously if you enter a competition and don't win you spend effort entering for no reward. I wouldn't think it would be possible too drool let alone develop software without knowing that.

    That the prize runner benefits from non-winning entries (if the terms and conditions are as such, and you know them before you enter) is also obvious. That's part of the reason for running one, you might award your million dollar prize for the best piece of crap in a field of garbage and would have been better of hiring programmers (ignoring the promotion beneifits of a competition). Or you might get more and better software than you could have got via hiring for the same cost.

    Attending a job interview, writing a cover letter, tweaking the CV to highlight relevant experience, etc, those all require effort or time - and yet they don't have to offer me the job (or offer me the pay/benefits I want). Oh noes... there's risk...

  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:08PM (#33244288) Homepage
    No, this is Fark. The 'risks' they mentioned are obvious and belong to almost all contests.
    • by ADRA (37398) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:31PM (#33244612)

      You answered faster than I did! I mean DUH, that's how these contests work. That is why companies release them, and that is why there will always be a niche software market for them. If anything, it really tells us that there is an over supply of talent just wasting away in the market if they all have time to join these contests and get recognition. I don't really know how big this market is, but I can't imagine that the rewards are much above table scraps when you calculate time invested.

      • by gurps_npc (621217) on Monday August 16, 2010 @11:57AM (#33264450) Homepage
        In general, true. The three real reasons to enter these things are:

        1. You enjoy doing the work (and are unemployed or otherwise bored from lack of work).

        2. You are using it as an excuse to learn how to do the work, with ready made sample projects.

        3. You are (or work for) an organization in search of good publicity. (Schools, corporations, etc.)

  • by drew30319 (828970) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:49PM (#33244850) Homepage Journal
    My non-profit has run a contest for the past three years. Maybe I've not been doing things the "right" way but it's only after an entry has actually won a prize that the developer assigns any rights to my organization. If they don't win then I get nothing. If they do win they always have the option of not assigning the rights (and concomitantly not receiving a cash prize!).

    I'm not sure why somebody would willingly assign away their rights just for a chance to win and frankly I question the value of what a non-winning developer is receiving in exchange for the rights assignment. A "chance" doesn't seem like it would be adequate consideration.
  • Wow, those risky contests sound like just another at work, whether for yourself, or your employer. Either one could fail, and receive nothing.

    Maybe McAllister forgot about the whole "dot com" "nEW eCONOMY" (stylized for Web 2.0 chicness) market crashing.

  • by Spazmania (174582) on Friday August 13, 2010 @03:53PM (#33244910) Homepage

    Two comments:

    1. You're vulnerable to being sued simply for looking at someone cross-eyed. Anecdotes notwithstanding, you're not particularly more vulnerable just because you entered a contest.

    2. Using your invention without paying you is an unreasonable fear. They may not offer you the 50% stake in the company that you think your invention deserves, but unless you're antisocial, in some other way unreasonable or too disinterested to introduce yourself to the managers of the relevant team, the fact that they want to employ your invention within their product is generally a good enough reason to offer you employment. If you can come up with an execute one good idea, you can do it again. If you can do it twice you can do it 10 times. And if you can keep coming up with an executing good ideas then you're worth far more as an employee than your single contest idea was alone.

  • by dazedNconfuzed (154242) on Friday August 13, 2010 @04:02PM (#33245040)

    Just because a contest is held doesn't mean it will complete.

    The last IOCCC contest results have been highly anticipated for years now [].

  • by tsotha (720379) on Friday August 13, 2010 @08:09PM (#33247496)

    Those who participate invest valuable time toward winning the prize, but if they fail to meet the deadline (or to produce the leading results) their efforts could go completely unrewarded. Depending on the terms of the contest, however, the sponsor might still be able to make use of the runners-up's innovations — which, of course, would be a whole lot cheaper than hiring developers.'

    I don't see the problem here. This is known by the contestants going in. Of course the expected return on your time is better if you get a job - that's not the point of entering a contest like this.

  • In Soviet Russia contest risks you!

When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate; when in charge, ponder. -- James H. Boren