Scholarly meetings with a “Disclaimer and Waiver”

I’m guessing that most anthropologists don’t read the Disclaimer and Waiver to which you must consent when you register for conferences through the American Anthropological Association. It is a decidedly legalistic document, full of odd stipulations about liability, privacy, copyright, and responsibility. In principle it is an “agreement” between the user and the association, but as an exchange, it is decidedly one-sided: you the user are asked to give various things away, in return for which you get nothing in particular. And in form, it is identical to the End User License Agreements that, as we know, the vast majority of users accept without reading. It does not really seem to be written to be read; it seems to be written to be invoked in extremis in some moment of unexpected (yet planned-for) crisis.

In any event, it is a curious document. Here it is as of March 2016; I’ll highlight a few important passages.

Disclaimer and Waiver

As a condition of my participation in this meeting or event, I hereby waive any claim I may have against the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and its officers, directors, employees, or agents, or against the presenters or speakers, for reliance on any information presented and release AAA from and against any and all liability for damage or injury that may arise from my participation or attendance at the program. I further understand and agree that all property rights in the material presented, including common law copyright, are expressly reserved to the presenter or speaker or to AAA.

I acknowledge that participation in AAA events and activities brings some risk and I do hereby assume responsibility for my own well-being. If another individual participates in my place per AAA transfer policy, the new registrant agrees to this disclaimer and waiver by default of transfer.

AAA intends to take photographs and video of this event for use in AAA news and promotional material, in print, electronic and other media, including the AAA website. By participating in this event, I grant AAA the right to use any image, photograph, voice or likeness, without limitation, in its promotional materials and publicity efforts without compensation. All media become the property of AAA. Media may be displayed, distributed or used by AAA for any purpose.

By registering for this event, I agree to the collection, use, and disclosure of contact and demographic information. This information includes any information that identifies me personally (e.g. name, address, email address, phone number, etc.). AAA will use this information to: (a) enable your event registration; (b) review, evaluate and administer scholarships or other AAA initiatives; (c) market AAA opportunities you may potentially be interested in; and to (d) share limited information (e.g. title, company, address and demographic information) with third parties that perform services on behalf of AAA. AAA does not distribute email address or phone numbers to third parties or partners performing services on behalf of AAA. AAA may use this information for so long as AAA remains active in conducting any of the above purposes.

The bold points all seem to raise some questions:

  • The passage explaining who owns/has copyright on the presentations is quite ambiguous. Copyright is reserved “to the presenter… or to AAA” — but which is it? Surely no one intends to contemplate giving the AAA any rights to their intellectual production, merely by virtue of giving a conference talk.
  • The AAA requests that participants “assume responsibility for their own well-being.” But if some harm were to befall a participant at an AAA event, surely it would require actual investigation to ascertain the circumstances and allocate responsibilty, would it not? If, let’s say, the conference venue turns out to be unsafe in some fashion, surely that is not a priori the participants’ sole responsibility? The clause about responsibility is quite vague, but surely questions of legal liability for participants’ safety are something to be settled as they arise, rather than by this one-sided contract?
  • The AAA seems to be treating us as potential marketing opportunities, which is frustrating because it seems to reinforce the overall “they are a corporation, we are consumers of services” framework. That’s not the framework I would prefer to see underlying a scholarly association. (And it’s shady to say, “Well you have no grounds to complain about our marketing tactics, because you did agree to this waiver.”)
  • Finally and most importantly, the unlimited license to use photographs and other recordings is absolutely scandalous. It should go without saying that there are any number of circumstances why someone might want to participate in a scholarly meeting without having their picture splashed across the internet, ranging from cases of sexual harassment and stalking, to political activists who need privacy, to cultures with specific norms about controlling one’s likeness. A blanket license to take photographs, while advantageous to the association, is utterly anthropologically insensitive. They ought to have to ask for permission on a case-by-case basis (cf. informed consent in research).

These concerns seem in turn to raise some obvious (meta)procedural concerns. Who wrote this document? Who enforces it? How is it used in practice? Who reviewed it and signed off on it? I would be interested in knowing if any other scholarly associations have similar protocols, and if so, what their history is.