The government of the United Arab Emirates is offering a US$1 million prize to the international winner and a 1 million UAE dirham prize to the national winner of its “AI and Robotics Award for Good” competition.

The objective of the award is to encourage “innovation that benefits humanity”. The submissions must therefore relate to education, healthcare or social services and must be “new and creative”. The competition is part of the UAE’s plans to make 2015 a year of innovation.

The terms of entry for the award state that intellectual property rights in any submission remain with the submitter or holder of those rights. That sounds like a fair statement of principle. However, unless the submitter has filed a patent application for the invention prior to making it public, it is difficult to see what rights the submitter may have once the invention has been disclosed and its novelty very likely destroyed. Without the protection of a patent application, or arrangements for confidential disclosure, the inventions submitted to the competition will be public property and not the property of the submitter. There is no mention in the terms of entry to the competition of confidentiality or patent protection or the possible need for those participating in the award to consider taking advice on patent protection prior to making a submission.

The terms also provide that if a UAE Federal Government entity takes an interest in a submission, it may use or implement it “as is” and the submitter remains the owner of the rights in the invention.  The parties are to negotiate terms of use. This appears to be a kind of compulsory licence. However, it will not be necessary for the government to negotiate with the submitter if the submitter has lost the right to a patent by disclosure of the invention to the competition. The government will also have lost the opportunity to commercialise the invention exclusively if proper arrangements have not been made to protect novelty and patentability.

Any UAE Federal Government entity may also seek to develop the idea submitted in which case the government will own the rights in the “developed version” and not the submitter of the idea. How this will work if the submitter has filed a patent application for the invention is not clear – the developed version of the idea “owned by the government” may not be separately patentable and indeed may infringe the submitters future patent rights.

Encouraging innovation for the social good is to be applauded but the intellectual property issues around competitions for ideas and innovations are complex and require expert input to ensure that the innovations do ultimately benefit those in need.

The competition website is at: http://www.roboticsforgood.ae/en