Trademarking somebody else's idea behind their back is both a bad idea and highly immoral. If it wasn't your idea, you don't trademark and you don't patent. It really is that simple, people.
The news that the term hackathon had been trademarked in Germany reached me late last week, via this thread on openbsd-misc. The ideas sounded pretty ludicrous to me at the time, but I was too busy with other stuff that couldn't wait to start reacting properly, and a few distractions later, I'd forgotten about the whole thing.
Then today, via the Twitter stream, came the news that an outfit trading under the name Young Targets (how cute) had now started sending invoices at EUR 2500 a pop to anybody in Germany who dared use the term. One example has been preserved here by Hannover-based doctape, who had hosted an informal developer meetup earlier this year.
It may come as a surprise to a select few, but if there is somebody, somewhere, who is entitled to making money off that fairly well-known term, it is not that group of Germans. The term hackathon has been in use for a decade at least, and it springs like many other good things from the free software movement. The exact origin of the term is not clear, but one of the more prominent contenders for the first original use is the OpenBSD project. As you can see from the project's hackathons page, informal developer gatherings have most likely been called just that since 1999 at least.
And as anyone with an Internet connection an minimal searching skills will find out, hackathons have been quite crucial in keeping the project moving forward and offering tech goodies everybody uses, all for free and under a permissive license anybody can understand.
These items include the Secure Shell client and server used by 97% of the Internet (OpenSSH), the much praised OpenBSD packet filter PF and a whole host of other useful software that's developed as integral parts of the OpenBSD system but tend to find their way into other products such as those offered by Apple, Blackberry and quite a few others, including Linux distributions.
My brief and not too exhaustive search of mailing list archives tonight seems to turn up this message From Theo de Raadt to openbsd-misc dated July 1st, 2001 as the earliest public reference to a hackathon, but reading Theo's message again today I'm pretty convinced that the term was in common use even back then. If anyone can come up with evidence of use earlier than this, I'd love to hear from you, of course (mail to peter at bsdly dot net preferably with the word hackathon somewhere in the subject will be read with interest, or leave a comment below if you prefer).
I'm no lawyer at the best of times, but trademarking a term that both originated elsewhere and has been in general use for more than a decade seems to me at least highly immoral, and if it's not illegal, it should be. Trademarking a free software term and proceeding to charge EUR 2500 a pop for its use? It will be in your best interest to stay out of my physical proximity, Meine Damen und Herren.
Hot on the heels of what must have been a hectic night for the newly targeted young Berliners comes an announcement that states that they kinda, sorta will consider not charging sufficiently non-profity people for the use anyway, in the fluffiest terms I have ever heard come out of a German.
I'll offer our new targets some practical advice: Stop your nonsense right now, and make a real effort to track down the originators of the hackathon concept. It's likely you wil find that person is either Theo de Raadt or somebody else closely associated with the OpenBSD about the last turn of the century. If you cannot unregister the trademark, transfer the rights, free of charge, to the concept's originator.
Then either return any fees collected from your wrongful registration, or, at your victims' option, donate the equivalent sum to OpenBSD or a charity of your individual victims' choice.
Doing the right thing this late in the game and after messing up this thoroughly most likely won't save you from being the target of some sort of mischief from young hotheads (note that I strongly caution against using extra-legal tactics in this matter), but at least you, members and employees of Young Targets can hope that this embarrasing episode will be forgotten soon enough for you to resume some semblance of carreers in a not too distant future. Please go hide under a rock for now, after you've done the right thing as outlined above.
For anyone else interested in the matter, I strongly urge you to go to the OpenBSD project's donations page to donate, grab some CD sets and/or other swag from the orders page, and if you think you can help out with one or more items listed on the hardware wanted page, that will be very welcome for the project too.
It should be noted that I do not serve in any official capacity for the OpenBSD project. The paragraphs above represent my opinion only, and what I have outlined here should not be considered any kind of offer or representation on behalf of the OpenBSD project.
If you're interested in OpenBSD in general, you have a real treat coming up in the form of Michael W. Lucas' Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd edition. If a firewall or other networking is closer to your heart, you could give my own The Book of PF and the PF tutorial (or here) it grew out of. You can even support the OpenBSD project by buying the books from them at the same time you buy your CD set, see the OpenBSD Orders page for more information.
Upcoming talks: I'll be speaking at BSDCan 2013, on The Hail Mary Cloud And The Lessons Learned, with a preview planned for the BLUG meeting a couple of weeks before the conference. There will be no PF tutorial at this year's BSDCan, fortunately my staple tutorial item was crowded out by new initiatives from some truly excellent people. (I will, however, be bringing a few copies of The Book of PF and if things work out in time, some other items you may enjoy.)