TED (Technology Entertainment Design) Talks have swept the internet as one of the best resources for talks on the most up to date, entertaining, well produced, scientific, humanitarian research and projects. Most people who enjoy TED Talks now do not know that TED is one of the most exclusive conferences in history, and that it used to be completely closed and tightly controlled. Since a revolutionary change to make their conferences more open, TED has expanded into a bigger, more profitable, more expensive conference, and with offshoot conferences around the world. Much to the chagrin of modern pirate hunters like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who see downloading their intellectual property for free as buccaneering; TED effectively demonstrates that giving away your intellectual property can lead to huge financial returns.
TED Talks, usually 18 minutes long, are recorded at the annual TED Conference. Getting a seat at a TED Conference has always been by invitation or application only, and extremely expensive. Billionaires wait for years to get a seat. World class speakers, thinkers, and activists trip over themselves to speak at TED and their only payment is the privilege of a precious seat. Previously, TED Conference attendees were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The talks were not shared with the world. As Tufts University Professor of Philosophy, author, and a repeat TED speaker Dan Dennett has said, “What happened at TED stayed at TED.”
When the new TED Curator, Chris Anderson, took over, he expanded the range of speakers, and decided to release TED Talks to the world, for free, on the Internet. Viewers are encouraged to download the talks, have conversations about them on their websites, share them with friends, and use them for educational purposes. Volunteer translators translate the talks so they can expand past people who speak only English.
Since the videos were released for free and shared with the world, the cost of a seat at TED Conference has gone up from $4,400 to $6,000 per seat. They found a wider audience by expanding the focus. TED moved from their home in Monterey, CA to Long Beach, CA to accommodate more attendees. TED spawned a sister conference, TEDGlobal which is held in a different country each year. TEDActive 2012 meets at the same time as the TED Conference and costs $3,750 to watch a live simulcast of the TED Conference, after which attendees are encouraged to discuss the talks. They also encouraged TEDx conferences were TED fans hold mini-TED conferences they host themselves. All this while increasing the quality of the production of their talks, sticking true to their goals, keeping their exceptional level of speakers, developing a loyal following, and becoming an award-winning Internet powerhouse.
Groups like the RIAA and MPAA contend that allowing their copyrighted material to be given for free online would lead to the collapse of their business, and costs them billions of dollars per year. The RIAA website,
“It’s commonly known as piracy, but it’s a too benign term that doesn’t even begin to adequately describe the toll that music theft takes on the many artists, songwriters, musicians, record label employees and others whose hard work and great talent make music possible.”
“Our goal with all these anti-piracy efforts is to protect the ability of the recording industry to invest in new bands and new music and, in the digital space, to give legal online services a chance to flourish.”
“One credible analysis by the Institute for Policy Innovation concludes that global music piracy causes $12.5 billion of economic losses every year, 71,060 U.S. jobs lost, a loss of $2.7 billion in workers’ earnings, and a loss of $422 million in tax revenues, $291 million in personal income tax and $131 million in lost corporate income and production taxes. For copies of the report, please visit www.ipi.org.”
[Ipi.org is the website for Institute for Policy Innovation, founded by former Republican Representative Dick Armey, and is a think tank with the stated goal, “Advocating lower taxes, fewer regulations, and a smaller, less-intrusive government.” In the Intellectual Property (IP) section of ipi.org, they state, “So IPI is increasingly making intellectual property protection one of our key policy priorities.”]
The RIAA and MPAA have taken aggressive legal action against people downloading or using their intellectual property. They filed thousands of lawsuits against average people for downloading songs, many of which were John Doe lawsuits. P2P websites were sued for allowing file sharing. YouTube and similar websites have seen extensive use of DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) cease & desist letters against people who post videos containing copyrighted materials, including going after people for instances that previously would have been considered fair use. They have even been accused of pushing the boundaries of due process by subpoenaing Internet service providers for the private information of their customers and threatening the ISPs with lawsuits if they did not police file sharing by their customers. Many colleges were sued for allowing file sharing on their networks, most of the suits were thrown out of court.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit public interest legal firm who specializes in online issues, has defended people sued by the RIAA and MPAA.
Fred von Lohmann, the Senior Intellectual Property Attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a 2003 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed about the RIAA,
“Puh-leeze. You tell us your industry’s on the brink of extinction: It’s time to do something daring, not suicidal.
The labels can create a new business model that will serve as an example to other copyright owners. After all, it’s no more radical than their threatening millions of Americans – customers – with ruinous litigation. What court or regulator is going to get in the way of a new approach that turns fans back into customers? Especially if the labels decide to offer a piece of the pie to artists – the only group with a credible claim to victimhood, even if most of their victimization has come at the labels’ hands.”
If their record profits since the advent of file sharing were not enough to make them reconsider their treatment of perpetrators of rogue downloads, TED’s revolutionary change in business model is proof positive that giving away content, even content that is expensive to create, can increase visibility, market share, good will, and profits.
Giving away the intellectual property of TED has not been the catalyst of its collapse. Rather, it has brought it into greater acclaim, making a seat at TED more prestigious, more desirable, and more valuable. This is no surprise to the tech community, which has long advocated that the RIAA and MPAA need to revisit how they are treating the people who are downloading their content.
Mike Masnick, founder of TechDirt.com, has suggested that content developers like music and video studios move to the CwF+RtB = $$ model. CwF (Connect with Fans) + RtB (give them a Reason to Buy) = $$. There is nothing to suggest that TED Curator Chris Anderson was trying to employ CwF+RtB, or was even aware of it, but intentional or not, he effectively showed that it is not a pie in the sky idea meant to absolve digital swashbucklers from responsibility while putting an unfair burden of expense on content developers. TED has CwF (Releasing TED Talks to the public, expanding the focus, and TEDx)+RtB (Increased prestige, cutting edge knowledge, networking with the most intriguing people in the world, interesting talks) = Big money for TED.
The RIAA and MPAA could follow Chris Anderson’s lead and stop seeing pirates and start seeing prophets; people willing to spend their own money and time spreading the word of their product. By creating experiences in the theater or at a concert or develop communities of fans, creates legions of people eager to discuss and create value for the developer. For TED, it is increased seats and venues for their talks. The MPAA and the RIAA need to put down their briefs and figure out their new RtB.
We should look to TED, not only as a model of how to present hard to swallow information easily, but how an organization can provide intellectual property for free, and still walk away with full pockets.