Weekly take: INTA’s broadside against free riders raises tough questions
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Weekly take: INTA’s broadside against free riders raises tough questions

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INTA is calling out ‘immoral’ unregistered attendees at the association’s annual meeting, but the debate is more nuanced

By now, many readers (at least those who practise trademark law) might be busy arranging their diaries for this year’s INTA annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

If so, it’s likely their inboxes will already be piling up with meeting requests from law firms or intellectual property service providers.

With roughly 10,000 delegates registering each year, the annual meeting provides an opportunity for lawyers to network and for in-house counsel to meet existing and potentially new external advisers.

But not everyone heading to Atlanta this year will have registered.

According to INTA, it misses out on potential revenue of between $1.5 million and $2.2 million each year from people attending but not officially registering (and paying) for the meeting.

The association estimates that around 1,500 lawyers descend on the annual event each year to arrange fringe meetings and conduct business but without formally signing up.

Upping the ante

INTA has seemingly stepped up its opposition to this practice in 2024 despite it being a longstanding issue. However, it did run a social media campaign last year to raise awareness of and show that they did not condone the activity.

This year, it has created a LinkedIn post and published a YouTube interview with chief executive Etienne Sanz de Acedo. In the video, he described attending without registering as “immoral” and showing a “lack of respect” to paying registrants.

While I understand why INTA feels the need to do this, those are perhaps quite harsh words for what is, at least for some, a more nuanced issue.

Let’s start by looking at this from INTA’s point of view.

It must be incredibly frustrating for the organisation to spend the time, effort, and funds arranging a conference only to have swathes of attendees come and enjoy some of the benefits (the unregistered won’t be able to attend sessions or receptions) without having paid the registration fee.

In the interview, Sanz de Acedo shared some startling figures about the impact of non-paying registrants. The $2.2 million, which INTA estimates it would make if all attendees officially signed up, is also the budget for running its representative offices around the world, for example.

At the same time, this is hardly a new issue.

I have spoken to lawyers over the years who say that when INTA comes around they base themselves in the annual meeting’s host city but do not formally register – mainly because meetings with potential clients are more important to them than attending sessions and receptions.

Perhaps the longevity of this tactic is why INTA is taking a strong approach, and I certainly don’t blame it for doing so: like everyone else, INTA will have to cope with rising costs and inflation.

But INTA should also consider why some people do this.

While I don’t doubt that some are adopting canny, though unfair, tactics without much care about the impact on INTA, others will have genuine cost concerns.

A standard annual meeting ticket for a member is $1,775 and $3,475 for a non-member.

For some firms, this won’t be an issue, but smaller outfits may find it financially difficult to send large teams so may register some senior lawyers but not junior team members.

I’m not sure there is too much wrong with this approach, especially if the ‘firm’ is in effect represented by the registered senior partner(s).

INTA does offer one complimentary ticket for firms or corporates who buy a certain number of standard tickets. Expanding this could certainly help.

An INTA spokesperson told Managing IP it revisits its pricing structure every year and looks for creative ways to keep fee increases as small as possible while keeping the meeting within budget.

“Unfortunately, the cost of doing business is increasing, especially in hospitality, which was hit significantly by the COVID pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

As far as corporations go, we all know how tight budgets are and that, at some companies, IP struggles to get investment from senior executives.

I could easily imagine a situation whereby a company declined to put major resources into sending delegates to an IP conference or tried to get around it by sending them to the event to meet people but not enjoy the full benefits of registration.

The INTA spokesperson added: “We explore ways to offer such discounts and allow companies and firms to bring more members of their team to participate in the meeting. We find that those who do bring their teams are able to take advantage of more of the meeting offerings, thereby maximising a return on their investment in the event.”

Words of warning

At the same time, though, INTA has to make its money somehow.

In his YouTube interview, Sanz de Acedo said he has heard conversations between annual meeting corporate attendees who have said they will not instruct lawyers from firms who have not registered.

If that is true, then it could be reason enough for law firms to consider registering at least one member of their team.

Sanz de Acedo added that those who attended without registering were probably not abiding by INTA’s mantra of “building a better society through brands”, questioning whether those people deserved to be “part of our community” if they did not show solidarity with it.

That may well be true, but INTA should also continue to assess how it can be as open as possible to the community it serves.

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