Upon refusing to sign an NDA to attend a research conference

Draft of 2006.10.10 ☛ 2015.03.18

May include: academia&c.

I find myself, having driven eight hours to Champaign for two days of classes and a presentation at the annual technical conference at Wolfram Research, and spent the night in a smelly old motel, handed a slip of paper to sign. I suddenly find that I need to learn to read better—that registering for a conference entails signing away my rights to discuss the conference.

I suppose I must hang out with a different crowd. A more collegial, academic, collaborative crowd. One that doesn’t have ridiculous lawyers doing things like this.

One the one hand, we have the thing that pushed me into agreeing to come here over the two other (at least equally interesting) conferences ongoing this week:

The Wolfram Technology Conference 2006 will be an open forum for all to see how Mathematica has matured and how it continues to grow. Professionals, students, educators, and others interested in the future of technical computing are encouraged to attend.

On the other hand, we have the following, which is reached through one small-font link on the registration page:

This Confidentiality and Non-Disclosure Agreement (“Agreement”) is made by and between Wolfram Research, Inc. (“WRI”), and the undersigned individual (“Recipient”).

During Recipient’s attendance at the Wolfram Technology Conference 2006, WRI may disclose, and Recipient may have access to, certain Confidential Information including future Wolfram Research technology. In order to ensure that such information remains confidential, Recipient agrees as follows:

1. For purposes of this Agreement, “Confidential Information” shall mean information or material designated as Confidential or Internal Information by WRI, or not generally known by non-WRI personnel, that Recipient obtains knowledge of or access to during the Wolfram Technology Conference 2006.

2. Recipient agrees to hold in confidence and not directly or indirectly reveal, report, publish, disclose, export, or transfer any Confidential Information to any person or entity, or utilize any of the Confidential Information for any purpose that is not expressly approved by WRI in writing.

3. Confidential Information is and shall remain the sole property of WRI, and no licenses or proprietary rights are granted hereby to Recipient. Recipient agrees not to remove from premises or to reproduce any Confidential Information without the express written consent of WRI.

4. Recipient acknowledges that the Confidential Information is a special, valuable, and unique asset of WRI. Because of the unique nature of the information, Recipient understands and agrees that WRI will suffer irreparable harm in the event that Recipient fails to comply with any of Recipient’s obligations herein and that monetary damages will be inadequate to compensate WRI for such breach. Accordingly, Recipient agrees that WRI will, in addition to any other remedies available to it at law or in equity, be entitled to injunctive relief to enforce the terms of the Agreement.

5. This Agreement shall be governed by, and interpreted in accord with, the laws of the State of Illinois, United States.

6. The enforceability of any provision of this Agreement shall not impair or affect any other provision. The failure of WRI to enforce at any time one or more provisions hereof shall not be construed as a waiver of any or all provisions.

7. This Agreement contains the full and complete understanding of the parties with respect to the subject matter hereof and supersedes all prior representations and understandings, whether oral or written. This Agreement may not be modified or amended unless done in writing, specifically stating the additions or changes, and signed by both parties.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, Recipient hereby voluntarily executes this Agreement as of the date below:

No clause specifies what the Confidential Information is. In other words, this is a blanket nondisclosure covering every utterance made by any person at the conference. No blogging, no telephone descriptions, no recommendations, no unveiled enthusiastic accolades over their wonderful software.

“Open”. I like “open forum” especially, in this context.

Now, I’m sure that the sentiment that inspires this—beyond the corporate culture—is one of fostering collegial comfort among the participants, and spreading the word on technical aspects of Mathematica 6.0 and other newfangled things. In other words, I bet they think it makes it more “professional” to do it this way. I know a lot of entrepreneurial engineering and scientific types who imagine that making potential customers sign an NDA is a sign of seriousness and diligence, rather than amateurish self-importance and amusing hubris.

I’m OK with that. I like hubris, to a point. But I’ve been to a lot of conferences, through the years. The most expensive—the ones I paid the most to attend—all had explicit statements prohibiting submissions with nondisclosures. Disallowing. Conference implies talking, passing it along, enthusiastic collaboration: in a word, “disclosure”. “Nondisclosure”, for me, implies sales event. Same sense I get from the people who want to give you a free lunch to “come watch a video” at their condos.

I just need to learn to read better, is all. There is that little link, right there, in plain sight. Who would even consider signing up for a conference, and pay to attend, and travel to get there, without reading every damned word on the registration form including the hyperlinks? Only a fool, surely. Not the sort of fool one wants attending such an event.

There are two sure-fire ways to keep a secret. One is to keep your mouth shut about it. The other is to so completely alienate anybody who has any interest in it that they give up on trying to listen to you.

I’ll sleep on it, and let you know how this plays out. Might turn out to be a good day for antiquing on the way home, tomorrow….