Are You at Legal Risk for Speaking at Conferences?

Alicia Ault

July 27, 2021

When Jerry Gardner, MD, and a junior colleague received the acceptance notification for their abstract to be presented at Digestive Diseases Week (DDW) 2021, a clause in the mandatory participation agreement gave Gardner pause. It required his colleague, as the submitting author, to completely accept any and all legal responsibility for any claims that might arise out of their presentation.

The clause was a red flag to Gardner, president of Science for Organizations, a Mill Valley, California–based consulting firm. The gastroenterologist and former head of the Digestive Diseases Branch at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases — who has made hundreds of presentations and had participated in DDW for 40 years — had never encountered such a broad indemnity clause.

Medscape Medical News investigated just how risky it is to make a presentation at a conference ― more than a dozen professional societies were contacted. Although DDW declined to discuss its agreement, Houston healthcare attorney Rachel V. Rose said that Gardner was smart to be cautious. "I would not sign that agreement. I have never seen anything that broad and all encompassing," she said.

The DDW requirement "means that participants must put themselves at great potential financial risk in order to present their work," Gardner said. He added that he and his colleague would not have submitted an abstract had they known about the indemnification clause up front.

Gardner advised his colleague not to sign the DDW agreement. She did not, and both missed the meeting.

Speakers "Have to Be Careful"

Gardner may be an exception. How many doctors are willing to forgo a presentation because of a concern about something in an agreement?

John Mandrola, MD, said he operates under the assumption that if he does not sign the agreement, then he won't be able to give his presentation. He admits that he generally just signs them and is careful with his presentations. "I've never really paid much attention to them," said Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Louisville, Kentucky, and chief cardiology correspondent for Medscape.

Not everyone takes that approach. "I do think that people read them, but they also take them with a grain of salt," said E. Magnus Ohman, MBBS, professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. He said he's pragmatic and regards the agreements as a necessary evil in a litigious nation. Speakers "have to be careful, obviously," Ohman told Medscape.

Some argue that the requirements are not only fair but also understandable. David Johnson, MD, a former president of the American College of Gastroenterology, said he has never had questions about agreements for meetings he has been involved with. "To me, this is not anything other than standard operating procedure," he said.

Presenters participate by invitation, notes Johnson, a professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, in Norfolk, Virginia, who is a contributor to Medscape. "If they stand up and do something egregious, I would concur that the society should not be liable," he said.

Big Asks, Big Secrecy

Even for those who generally agree with Johnson's position, it may be hard to completely understand what's at stake without an attorney.

Although many declined to discuss their policies, a handful of professional societies provided their agreements for review. In general, the agreements appear to offer broad protection and rights to the organizers and large liability exposure for the participants. Participants are charged with a wide range of responsibilities, such as ensuring against copyright violations and intellectual property infringement, and that they also agree to unlimited use of their presentations and their name and likeness.

The American Academy of Neurology (AAN), which held its meeting virtually this year, required participants to indemnify the organization against all "losses, expenses, damages, or liabilities," including "reasonable attorneys' fees." Federal employees, however, could opt out of indemnification.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) said that it does not usually require indemnification from its meeting participants. However, a spokesperson noted that ASCO did require participants at its 2021 virtual meeting to abide by the terms of use for content posted to the ASCO website. Those terms specify that users agree to indemnify ASCO from damages related to posts.

The American Psychiatric Association said it does not require any indemnification but did not make its agreement available. The American Academy of Pediatrics also said it did not require indemnification but would not share its agreement.

An American Diabetes Association spokesperson said that "every association is different in what they ask or require from speakers," but would not share its requirements.

The American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Physicians, and the Endocrine Society all declined to participate.

The organizations that withheld agreements "probably don't want anybody picking apart their documents," said Kyle Claussen, CEO of the Resolve Physician Agency, which reviews employment contracts and other contracts for physicians. "The more fair a document, the more likely they would be willing to disclose that, because they have nothing to hide," he said.

"It's All on You"

Requiring indemnification for any and all aspects of a presentation appears to be increasingly common, said the attorneys interviewed for this article. As organizations repackage meeting presentations for sale, they put the content further out into the world and for a longer period, which increases liability exposure.

"If I'm the attorney for DDW, I certainly think I'd want to have this in place," said Claussen.

"It's good business sense for them because it reduces their risk," said Courtney H. A. Thompson, an attorney with Fredrikson & Byron, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who advises regional and national corporations and ad agencies on advertising, marketing, and trademark law. She also works with clients who speak at meetings and who thus encounter meeting agreements.

Thompson said indemnity clauses have become fairly common over the past decade, especially as more companies and organizations have sought to protect trademarks, copyrights, and intellectual property and to minimize litigation costs.

A conference organizer "doesn't want a third party to come after them for intellectual property, privacy, or publicity right infringement based on the participation of the customer or, in this case, the speaker," said Thompson.

The agreements also reflect America's litigation-prone culture.

Dean Fanelli, a patent attorney in the Washington, DC, office of Cooley LLP, said the agreements he's been asked to sign as a speaker increasingly seem "overly lawyerly."

Two decades ago, a speaker might have been asked to sign a paragraph or a one-page form. Now "they often look more like formalized legal agreements," Fanelli told Medscape.

The DDW agreement, for instance, ran four pages and contained 21 detailed clauses.

The increasingly complicated agreements "are a little over the top," said Fanelli. But as an attorney who works with clients in the pharmaceutical industry, he said he understands that meeting organizers want to protect their rights.

DDW's main indemnification clause requires the participant to indemnify DDW and its agents, directors, and employees "against any and all claims, demands, causes of action, losses, damages, liabilities, costs and expenses," including attorneys' fees "arising out of a claim, action or proceeding" based on a breach or "alleged breach" by the participant.

"You're releasing this information to them and then you're also giving them blanket indemnity back, saying if there's any type of intellectual property violation on your end ― if you've included any type of work that's protected, if this causes any problems ― it's all on you," said Claussen.

Other Potential Pitfalls

Aside from indemnification, participation agreements can contain other potentially worrisome clauses, including onerous terms for cancellation and re-use of content without remuneration.

DDW requires royalty-free licensing of a speaker's content; the organization can reproduce it in perpetuity without royalties. Many organizations have such a clause in their agreements, including the AAN and the American College of Cardiology.

ASCO's general authorization form for meeting participants requires that they assign to ASCO rights to their content "perpetually, irrevocably, worldwide and royalty-free." Participants can contact the organization if they seek to opt out, but it's not clear whether ASCO grants such requests.

Participants in the upcoming American Heart Association (AHA) annual meeting can deny permission to record their presentation. But if they allow recording and do not agree to assign all rights and copyright ownership to the AHA, the work will be excluded from publication in the meeting program, e-posters, and the meeting supplement in Circulation.

Claussen said granting royalty-free rights presents a conundrum. Having content reproduced in various formats "might be better for your personal brand," but it's not likely to result in any direct compensation and could increase liability exposure, he said.

How Presenters Must Prepare

Claussen and Rose said speakers should be vigilant about their own rights and responsibilities, including ensuring that they do not violate copyrights or infringe on intellectual property rights.

"I would recommend that folks be meticulous about what is in their slide deck and materials," said Thompson. He said that presenters should be sure they have the right to share material. Technologies crawl the internet seeking out infringement, which often leads to cease and desist letters from attorneys, she said.

It's better to head off such a letter, Thompson said. "You need to defend it whether or not it's a viable claim," and that can be costly, she said.

Both Thompson and Fanelli also warn about disclosing anything that might be considered a trade secret. Many agreements prohibit presenters from engaging in commercial promotion, but if a talk includes information about a drug or device, the manufacturer will want to review the presentation before it's made public, said Fanelli.

Many organizations prohibit attendees from photographing, recording, or tweeting at meetings and often require speakers to warn the audience about doing so. DDW goes further by holding presenters liable if someone violates the rule.

"That's a huge problem," said Mandrola, the cardiac electrophysiologist. He noted that although it might be easy to police journalists attending a meeting, "it seems hard to enforce that rule amongst just regular attendees."

Accept or Negotiate?

Individuals who submit work to an organization might feel they must sign an agreement as is, especially if they are looking to advance their career or expand knowledge by presenting work at a meeting. But some attorneys said it might be possible to negotiate with meeting organizers.

"My personal opinion is that it never hurts to ask," said Thompson. If she were speaking at a legal conference, she would mark up a contract and "see what happens." The more times pushback is accepted ― say, if it works with 3 out of 5 speaking engagements ― the more it reduces overall liability exposure, she said.

Fanelli, however, said that although he always reads over an agreement, he typically signs without negotiating. "I don't usually worry about it because I'm just trying to talk at a particular seminar," he said.

Prospective presenters "have to weigh that balance ― do you want to talk at a seminar, or are you concerned about the legal issues?" said Fanelli.

If in doubt, talk with a lawyer.

"If you ever have a question on whether or not you should consult an attorney, the answer is always yes," said Claussen. It would be "an ounce of prevention," especially if it's just a short agreement, he said.

Ohman, however, said that he believed "it would be fairly costly" and potentially unwieldy. "You can't litigate everything in life," he said.

As for Gardner, he said he would not be as likely to attend DDW in the future if he has to agree to cover any and all liability. "I can't conceive of ever agreeing to personally indemnify DDW in order to make a presentation at the annual meeting," he said.

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland–based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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