Hackathon-Gate Could Open a Trademark Pandora’s Box

By David Knight |

“A memorable name, an appealing sign, a unique image, a catchy sound, but also the messages that the trade mark conveys, the promises it makes.” So says the DPMA in its blurb about what makes trademarks unique. The word ‘hackathon’ doesn’t appear to be particularly unique – it has reportedly been around since 1999, and is certainly in common use around the world. So why was it allowed to be trademarked?

In truth, it seems to be relatively easy in Germany to trademark English terms which, while generic and in wide use, are not strictly dictionary-approved. Take, for example, ‘biltong‘ – a generic term originating from two Dutch words which is used across South Africa (and amongst the many South Africans now living eslewhere in the world) for the country’s famous jerky-style cured meat. In 2008, two acquaintances of mine managed to secure a trademark on ‘biltong’ in Germany. Although the trademark has since been cancelled, it meant that for several years, there were limits on marketing a product as ‘biltong’ in this country.

There are clearly problems with this system, then, but patents in a globalised world is a very complicated subject. What we should be worried about at the moment is how the system we have will affect the great things being done right now in technology in Berlin.

Let me be clear – I’m not as cynical about the original intentions of Young Targets in trademarking the term ‘hackathon’ as many seem to be. I don’t believe there was any genuine intention to screw people over, and of course any business venture is aimed at making money.

A Full-On Backlash

That said, I think it was naive – especially from a company which has been around the scene for 12 years – to believe this would end any other way. I don’t think there is quite such a group of people as informed, inter-connected, online and opinionated as those who make up a tech community. Sooner rather than later this was going to come out, and it was always going to spark off a pretty full-on backlash.

Part of the problem is the nature of the term which was trademarked. It’s not only that hackathon is such a general-use term, it’s also what it represents. Hackathons are not about making money; they are about tech people coming together and doing cool stuff in their spare time. Sure, if you’re lucky they may lead to a future business project, but ultimately it’s about creating and innovating.

And what’s the problem if large companies get involved? For the record, I’ll point out that I helped Deutsche Telekom put on their hackathon, together with Evernote, last month. It was a runaway success both for the participants and for DT. Yes, they did it to engage with the startup community, but so what? They provided the venue and the money to enable techies to come and do their thing without having to pay for the privilege.

When I spoke to Lutz Leichsenring from Young Targets, he struck me as a sincere guy, and he insisted that they were trying to prevent large companies from leveraging hackathons for their own purposes and taking away their benefits for others.

Offering Something Valuable

But as I always tell companies who approach us for advice on organising events in Berlin, you have to offer something valuable to potential attendees. If a large company put on an event solely for their own purpose which held no value for participants, no one would show up.

Take the DT hackathon, for example. There was the chance to work with the Evernote and Developer Garden APIs and there were a bunch of prizes up for grabs, ranging from a trip to Silicon Valley to devices and gift vouchers.

I think what Lutz and his colleagues wanted was to ensure the community element of hackathons was not lost to corporate progress. For my money, however, the very nature of hackathons means they just wouldn’t exist without this element. To put it another way – you can put on a decent hackathon without corporate sponsorship, but you can’t do it without the support of the hackers.

But with Young Targets announcing they will give up their rights to the term ‘hackathon’, surely that is crisis aborted?

Not necessarily.

Lutz was keen to emphasize that while they were willing to talk with the tech community about whether to give up the trademark or not, he was concerned that if they did, someone much less scrupulous would pick it up. This is a genuine worry – perhaps not in this particular case, not now, with so many people keeping an eye on the DPMA website with a view to jumping in with objections if someone does try to claim the term.

But what about so many other words we take for granted? Wouldn’t life be fun if we had to acquire a license for ‘startup’? Sure, that’s a bit unlikely, but a lot of people will now be paying more attention to Germany’s trademark system than they were before.

Consider Pandora’s Box open.