Stark criticism of Microsoft's Imagine Cup

by Kevin Shockey

Today the computer science students around the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico Bayamón campus were abuzz with visions of grandeur. It seems that over the last few weeks the faculty has been discussing and preparing to participate in the 2006 Imagine Cup, which is sponsored by Microsoft Corporation.

The Imagine Cup is an annual competition that provides an opportunity for young technologists to help solve some of the world's toughest problems. Students from high school and college can compete within different categories - Software Design, IT, Short Film, Algorithm, Project Hoshimi Programming Battle, and Interface Design - all focused on this year's theme, health. The competition is organized into regional invitationals; with a world-wide finals held this year in Dehli, India.

The main focus of the Imagine Cup is the software design competition. Teams of up to four persons are asked to build health-related solution that feature a self created Web service, is designed on .NET Framework 2.0, and uses Visual Studio for development. Invitational winners will receive $8,000 and an all expenses trip to India to compete in the world-wide finals. The winners of the Imagine Cup will receive $25,000 and world wide recognition. What a wonderful opportunity! There is a small catch, however. According to the legal notice for the competition, by accepting the prizes, competitors must: "... agree that Microsoft shall be free to use for any purpose the residuals resulting from access to or work with your Application. The term "residuals" means information in intangible form, which is retained in memory by persons who have had access to the Applications, including ideas, concepts, know-how, or techniques contained within.

By entering you agree that Microsoft will not have any obligation to limit or restrict the assignment of such persons or to pay royalties for any work resulting from the use of residuals. "

So although as the legal notice states later, you are not granting a license of any copyrights or patents, you grant Microsoft an irrevocable, royalty free, fully paid up, worldwide license to use, review, assess, test and otherwise analyze your entry and all its content in connection with this Contest. Although this is the fourth year for the Imagine Cup, this is the first year I have heard students I know talking about it. Now that I have checked into the details, I find the conditions for this contest deplorable. Microsoft is trying to fund its research and development by stealing the ideas from young students. This couldn't be any clearer when you compare the terms and conditions to another competition of sorts that Paul Graham founded in the form of Y Combinator.

If selected to participate as a Y Combinator founder, each team receives a $6,000 (per person) stipend to work for three months under the mentorship of Paul Graham and his associates. In exchange Y Combinator helps each team create a company, incorporate, present their technology to angel investors (including Yahoo and Google), and retain full ownership of all rights to their work. Y Combinator receives up to a 7 percent stake in each company for their efforts.

If you were a talented young technologist, which competition would you rather enter? One where you slave over a piece of software for months with the hope of winning $33,000, a trip to India, but giving away the license for someone else to market your software or doing the same amount of work and walking away with full rights minus 7% of any profits if you sell that software to Google?

The Imagine Cup is a huge farce and should be resented by any institution or country that is trying to install in their youth the entrepreneurial spirit. I recommend any teams that are considering this competition to seriously evaluate the cost of giving Microsoft "an irrevocable, royalty free, fully paid up, worldwide license to use" your innovation. I would also recommend reading Thomas Friedman's book "The World is Flat". Then do yourself a favor and check out the Y Combinator's Founders program. The world has indeed been flattened and the Imagine Cup represents old world thinking.

Am I missing something here?


2005-12-03 11:25:59
Imagine, as seen by John Lennon!

Imagine, by John Lennon

Imagine there's no heaven,

It's easy if you try,

No hell below us,

Above us only sky,

Imagine all the people

living for today...

Imagine there's no countries,

It isnt hard to do,

Nothing to kill or die for,

No religion too,

Imagine all the people

living life in peace...

Imagine no possesions,

I wonder if you can,

No need for greed or hunger,

A brotherhood of man,

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer,

but Im not the only one,

I hope some day you'll join us,

And the world will live as one.

I only wish Microsoft had this same vision!
I remain a Linux, and Open Source supporter and user!

Rick Stanley
2005-12-03 13:05:10
Imagine, as seen by John Lennon!
This seems to have been the pattern and culture right from the inception of MS. If I recall it was CPM that BG acquired from someone and eventually became DOS. This CPM had its roots in the Altair (possibly the first PC) and the hackers that codes from the switches on the front, and with no way of saving the programmed code. (I nearly bought one of these) And then the infamous BG "I own the code" letter.

Then there is all the MS squalking about innovation, when in fact most of their products came from someone elses innovation, including the OS. Was it MS that came up with the Word Processor? Was it MS that came up with the Spreadsheet? And the Outlook program, did they not buy another company to acquire that. Did they not buy the DB competition FoxPro, that was possibly the best DB of that time. Is their business language not about "killing" other companies, and "stealing" ideas, insteading of product competing in the market place. ("kill Google") And should you be surprised that they would set up a competition to steal the ideas of the brightest of the young generation.

2005-12-03 13:48:05
Imagine, as seen by John Lennon!
Actually is was DOS that BG bought from Seattle Computer.

"Microsoft buys DOS outright on 27 July 1981 for $50,000 in "the deal of the Century". "

See: III - N.

BG never bought CP/M, although he wanted to.

Rick Stanley

2005-12-13 17:28:09
Perspective of a contestant
As a student and a regular contestant in programming competitions, I am well aware of the competition terms that you cite, as they seems to be very common. As an example, Google Code Jam, Google's contest similar in spirit to Imagine Cup although a bit narrower in focus, has very similar terms and conditions ( Google Code Jam terms state that to be eligible for a prize, every winner will be required to sign an affidavit in which he or she "licenses to TopCoder and Google rights to all information submitted during the tournament (including rights to source code and other executables)".

These terms do not seem to be specific to these two contests, either. TopCoder, an organization which holds regular programming contests, and as of December 2005 registers over 67,000 members in its community, applies similar rules to its matches and tournaments. For example, see the Official Rules and Regulations of the upcoming 2006 TopCoder Open tournament ( I personally don't know why the licensing rules seem consistently to be a part of programming contests. It seems to be present in the terms for contests organized by companies, but I could not find a mention of it for the contest organized by ACM, an academic association. My speculation is that sofware companies are trying to protect themselves against possible future claims that a given software feature was derived from a contest entry, even if it was developed independently of the contest.

From the perspective of a student and a programming contestant, my impression has been that companies hold these contests in order to hire top contestants, rather than to steal ideas and odd bits of code. I personally know several students at my university and many more elsewhere who have been hired directly as a result of their success in a programming contest. On top of that, success in programming contests gives a student a definitive edge during interviews with other employers, not only the sponsors of the contest.

With respect to your other point, it does not seem very appropriate to compare the activities of Y Combinator to programming contests. According to their website, Y Combinator is a "venture firm specializing in funding very early stage startups". Now, that might be an excellent opportunity for students interested in starting out their own businesses. But, it makes no sense to directly compare a venture capital investment offer to prize money given out by a sofware company in order to attract students to a programming contest. Depending on your perspective, both venture firms and software companies are either trying to make money off students, or give them a chance to start up their career - Y Combinator by investing into their startups and then earning returns, Microsoft and Google by recruiting them and integrating them into their teams.

I feel obliged to respond, because I disagree with the way your blog misrepresents programming contests. As a background, I'm a fourth-year Computer Science underdgrad at the University of British Columbia. I have competed in two seasons of Google Code Jam, almost 60 TopCoder matches and tournaments, two ACM ICPC regionals, and will attend this year's ACM ICPC World Finals as a reserve for UBC's team. I have not competed in any of the Imagine Cups, but I have followed last year's. I have done a number of software development jobs, including a 4-month internship at Microsoft as a developer on the Exchange Server team.

Igor Ostrovsky