Free-riding TED

I wrote about TEDx Brussels the other week and bashed it a little for not inviting dialogue and criticism. I still enjoy the TED videos, there is a lot to take away from them, but it turns out that there is another problem. British writer Frank Swain revealed this week that the TED organisation – a not for profit – does not pay its speakers. In fact, it expressedly prohibits the independent TEDx-organisers to pay their speakers. Even if they wanted to, they can’t – it would be a breach of contract. Bear in mind that tickets to these events are pricey, the TEDx in Brussels was more than €100 and the core TED-events much more.

Of course, you could use the old visibility-argument – TED provides a great platform for speakers who want to get their message out. A lot of conferences don’t pay their speakers. On the other hand, this falls into an all-too-familiar pattern of Silicon Valley-philosophy where the content is always free and those who distribute it make the big bucks. Google is another example, making huge profits on selling ads against other people’s content in their search and other services. Sure, you could argue that they bring traffic to other websites, but the pattern remains: Google curates the content  (through algorithms for the most part), sells ads against it and effectively takes revenue from for example traditional media who used to make ad profits from the same content that Google now exploits.

In his 2011 book “Free Ride” (Doubleday), US author Robert Levine – formerly editor at Wired magazine and editor-in-chief of Billboard –makes a convincing case that digital technology shifts revenue from producers of media content to new intermediaries. The methods are different – broadband carriers make money from movie file-sharing (by selling more expensive plans), hardware manufacturers like Tivo sell on the promise of cutting out TV ads, aggregators like Huffington Post build their business on content from other media, and so on. Swain reveals that this pattern is not limited to digital distribution, adding TED talks to the list of free-riders.

Our economy increasingly relies on production of intangibles. That means content must be valued more, not less, going forward. It’s the opposite of information wanting to be free.