Netflix began a contest in 2006 for coders to win $1,000,000 if they could improve Netflix's Cinematch algorithm by at least 10%, and because coders like a good challenge (and people like money), folks have been steadily tinkering with their 1's and 0's ever since. (You can read more about the contest and its rules here.) Three years later, two teams came together with the winning code, which was confirmed Friday. Netflix's VP of corporate communications Steve Swasey told Wired, "This has been terribly exciting. It's like watching the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness and the Indy 500 all at once -- for geeks."
There are still a few hurdles for the team to jump through; the Netflix contest site states, "your qualifying submissions must have the largest accuracy improvement verified by the Contest judges, you must share your method with (and non-exclusively license it to) Netflix, and you must describe to the world how you did it and why it works."
As Wired points out, Netflix isn't the only company to dip its toes into "so-called Prize economics," which is when these companies offer prize incentives to outsiders to basically do work for free with an outside chance of winning big bucks. But doesn't this say to companies that it's okay to try and get lots and lots of hours from (some) highly skilled professionals for free? It would have cost Netflix far more than $1M to get consultants and coders on the job, especially for full-time gigs with all the benefits and trimmings. I'm not a code geek, but if I were, I'd probably be interested in this sort of challenge as well. On the other hand, perhaps I'd rather have a full-time job at Netflix writing code all day along with, you know, insurance.
As a writer, it's hard not to get riled up by these kinds of deals. There are all sorts of reasons to work for free on occasion -- clips, resumes, bragging rights, free stuff, barter -- but I find it problematic when a large, successful company wants something for nothing, especially when that company started out as the little guy and is now the leader in its field.
Writers, film fans, techies, what do you think?