Spock Challenge Has Some Nasty Problems

The Spock people search engine is running a competition similar to the Netflix Prize. The Spock Challenge started at 9 AM this morning (April 16th), runs for four months, and has a grand prize of $50,000.

Unfortunately, the criteria for winning is not clear, so you don’t have any way to tell whether your code is getting better, or even what “better” means. Here is the explanation of “How Winner Will be Determined” from the rules.

The winner will be be the Software Submission, that in the discretion of the judges selected by Spock, most elegantly and efficiently resolves the problem of conflation in data collected for search applications such as Spock’s.

Looks mysterious to me. Is there only one solution and they are just shooting for clean fast code? They can’t write clean fast code themselves?

If you are lucky enough to win with the unclear goal, you lose control of your source code and even your algorithms and patents.

Upon acceptance of the prize, the winning Software Submissions and all source code and algorithms related thereto becomes the sole and exclusive property of Spock. You agree to take such actions as are desirable to Spock to vest such ownership interest in Spock. Spock may use, reproduce, display, offer for sale, sublicense and otherwise exploit the winning Software Submissions and their source code as it sees fit in its sole discretion.

Compare that to the terms in the Netflix Prize rules, especially the “non-exclusive license”:

After qualifying for either the Grand or Progress Prize and being verified by the Contest judges, as a condition to receiving either Prize, the winning individual and/or team must grant to Netflix (including its affiliates and subsidiaries, employees, agents, and contractors), an irrevocable, royalty free, fully paid up, worldwide non-exclusive license under the Participants’ copyrights, patents or other intellectual property rights in the winning algorithm (“Winning Algorithm”) to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works from the Winning Algorithm and also to make, have made, use, sell, offer for sale, and import products that would otherwise infringe the Winning Algorithm. Except as encompassed in the concept of “have made”, this license will not include the right to grant further licenses or sublicenses.

Let’s see, a non-exclusive license for $1M or total control for $50K. That just sounds greedy. Why would anyone enter this? With the Netflix Prize, you could start a business. With the Spock Challenge, you don’t even get a down payment for a condo. Remember, you’ll be spending a chunk of it on patent searches to make sure you own those algorithms before selling them to Spock.

Spock’s lawyers need to go back to the drawing board on this one. Put together a clean, fair contest with a prize that matters.

Disclaimer: I work at Netflix.

Update: I found the criteria for qualifying on Spock’s learn more page. The criteria for winning are still a beauty contest.

A comment in the discussion board has pointed out that this “sole and exclusive property” requirement makes it hard (impossible?) to use open source code in your submission.

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