Hi, I'm Dan. I'm a student and an independent game developer. I recently had an experience entering a programming contest with my partner Vince. We made a casual game we think has excellent potential called Henko, only to pull out of the contest because of dubious business practices by the company hosting the contest. It's called crowd sourcing, and it's one way a company will take control of your intellectual property. After doing some research and speaking to lawyers we found out this sort of thing is pretty wide-spread. I suspect many students are falling into the trap. Our experience is a perfect example of why you must be vigilant when entering these contests, and always read rules and contracts carefully before signing them. As a result, we're going rogue, and putting our 48-hour game out for free. We also want to raise a little money for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and to work on Henko 2, so if you're so inclined, leave us a donation at the bottom of the page.
A few weeks ago, Vince and I entered in a programming contest. The contest had students from all over our country programming games in a 48 hour time span to compete for big (for students) cash prizes. We're both seasoned indie developers, working on many projects while studying in software engineering. I have a mod released on Steam, and Vince and I both form the coding team of a small indie title. We are also both GDC Conference Associates. We know our way around the games industry and we know that these contests can sometimes be trouble. We were careful to do our homework before entering this contest. Luckily the FAQ page of the contest answered our question and reassured us all submissions would be co-owned and that we could be published if we won a prize. That seemed fair to me.
The final concern I had was their enforcement of the 48-hour rule. I was expecting some form of check for this rule, to prevent cheating. When I spoke to the people on-site they told me "We're using the honour system, and we know what you can make in 48 hours, so don't worry about it". Not the answer I was expecting (more on this later), but we were honest participants and started on time.
So we made a game. It's called Henko (japanese for deflection), and it has you matching symbols to create arrows. You then throw a Shuriken around the grid to get points. Each arrow you hit increases your multiplier and when you finally hit the sides of the grid, you destroy a wall. If throw your Shuriken through a hole in the wall, it's game over. This is a casual game of strategy. We didn't sleep or do much else but code that weekend. The game turned out great, and we submitted it feeling accomplished with our work. As always a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is Henko:
When the news came we made the first cut, we were excited... Then we read the contract. Two clauses leaped out at us. The first assigned all intellectual property rights (including copyrights) to the contest holder and prevented us from marketing or selling the game. The second indemnified them of all claims, damages and liabilities on our application. In plain English: They take everything, and we pay for damages. This was pretty extreme. Not only does this contradict the FAQ page, it's a downright unfair contract. We pay the bill if they get sued, they keep our intellectual property (for ZERO compensation: we hadn't won a prize yet) and we can't sell it.
We tried negotiating to have the clauses removed, only to be told we had to sign the rights over before anything could be done or negotiated. They assured us we would get our intellectual property back if we didn't win (never specified on the contract). They also said we'd get a revenue share (never specified on the contract). They were never willing to change the contract or let us move on with the contest without signing the agreement. We finally spoke to a lawyer and he advised us not to sign this contract. The lawyer told us this was a form a crowd sourcing where the company acquires a bunch of ideas for cheap (a few thousand dollars to motivate students, then take their IP). We're not average students and we want to keep our rights to the game, but many others probably didn't speak up and got scammed out of their IP. While the students win small cash prizes, the company could make hundreds of thousands selling the game, and there is no guarantee that the creators will be compensated.
The lack of enforcement of the 48-hour rule is a dead giveaway that this is happening. If you care to find the best programmers, that rule must be enforced strictly. If all you want is two-dozen proofs of concept you can grab and churn out into games, you don't really give a damn how long the "kids" worked on it.
Many contests are very upfront about their rules. MyDreamApp for instance specifies that the contestant will receive a 15% royalty in exchange for the copyrights. Verizon's Power your App contest also provides similar guarantees. Others like the Great Canadian Apportunity don't mess with your copyrights at all and Google asserts that you can keep them. These contests are alright.
Other contests (the type we were in) try to slight you into giving away your intellectual property, and with it all control over your (probably awesome) app. This is the case with The Battle of the Apps which specifies that all copyrights must be handed to Microsoft Canada, among others. You can never know if these contests are hosted with the best of intentions (to sponsor innovation and get cool apps for your store) or if you'll get your copyrights taken away. So remember: You can always walk away from these contests. You must also know your rights. Many companies take advantage of students for their brilliance and their naive innocence. DON'T GET CAUGHT.
We're giving away Henko the way it is (48 hours of development time). We're also going to being developing Henko 2, because we believe we're on to something. Leave us a donation if you like it. We're pretty tight on cash, and donations will keep us going.
As an additional gesture, 50% of every donation we receive will go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is the leading civil liberties group defending your rights in the digital world. We're happy to support an organization that defends our digital rights. Most of all we want to turn our bad luck into something constructive for the world.