On Friday evening, TED, the company behind the invitation-only event that offers talks from experts on topics like “How One Flower Will Cure World Thirst” and “Space Game Is the Next Hunting Frontier,” had its lawyer send a note to itself: You’re drunk; please stop texting our friends.
The letter was actually sent to Eric Thurm, the producer and host of Drunk TED Talks, a performance series currently based in Brooklyn, that pokes fun at TED by having drunk (and sober) people give overwrought presentations on underwrought topics. (Past talks include, “Love, #Actually: A History of Mansplaining,” by Amanda Hess, “Extremely Hot and Incredibly Sad: How the Triangle Shirtwaist Disaster Fanned the Flames of the Workers’ Rights Movement,” by Ariel Dumas, and “Quit Playing Grocery Games With My Heart: The Passion of Guy Fieri,” by Jason Diamond.)
“While we understand that you may not intend to confuse the market with regard to TED’s brand, it is our position that your continued use of its trademarks and trade dress may cause the public to inaccurately assume that your events are connected to, associated with, or affiliated with TED and its well-known services relating to educational conferences, workshops, and seminars,” reads the cease-and-desist letter from TED’s representative, an attorney named Charles Guarino of the Moser Taboada law firm, a copy of which was provided to Jezebel.
“Actual examples of confusion have already occurred, as we have been informed that some TEDx organizers, upon viewing your promotional materials, were left with the impression that your events were affiliated with TED. Further, such continued use may result in the dilution of the distinctive nature of TED’s famous marks through the blurring or tarnishing of those marks.”
“I have to change the name of the event,” Thurm told Jezebel on a phone call. “I think that if I felt super committed to it and wanted to have a protracted legal fight—I think that it’s parody and protected speech—that would be such a large amount of time for me and probably also money and other stuff, that there’s no world where that’s feasible for me.”
“They are like a massive nonprofit, and if they wanted to—and I have been using this verb in other contexts—they could heel me.”
The silliness of the term “massive nonprofit” being employed to denote power aside, Thurm is right. TED has essentially allowed Drunk TED to continue to exist via its lack of legal action—just as I have with Drunk JOANNA (what I call myself when I am drunk). All it takes to heel a badly-behaved, intoxicated knock-off is a strongly-worded letter and a legal threat.
“I’ve been doing this for a really long time and kind of figured that they had a sense of humor about it and weren’t going to do it before now, then why would they take action all of a sudden?” Thurm said to Jezebel. “I knew it was a possibility.”
Thurm tells me that the idea for Drunk TED Talks was formed when he was a student at the University of Chicago. “Me and a bunch of other people were kind of drunk during TEDxUChicago, and we were looking at the talks and making fun of the titles of real TED Talks,” he said. “Like, this is an incredibly stupid and pretentious and obscenely overblown way to educate people about these topics. At one point somebody said, ‘We would do a better job of teaching people about these topics if we were extremely drunk.’ And it just kind of stuck for awhile.”
He tested the idea out with a party at his house, in which very drunk people gave actual presentations. After he moved to New York following graduation, he continued the show as a way to make friends and connect with people whose work he admired. The shows were a hit and they’ve grown organically since then, moving to gradually bigger spaces, until they settled at Littlefield, a venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn. (Disclosure: I also host a show there called “Drunk Science.” It’s a coincidence; these are very different shows with one common element.) Today, Drunk TED Talks is one in a landscape of New York literary-esque events that are held in the same group of bars and bookshops and are populated by internet writers and comedians. Drunk TED Talks has hosted Jezebel’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd and Clover Hope as experts, as well as several Jezebel freelancers.
In an email to Jezebel, a TED spokesperson wrote, “Drunk TED’s a hilarious concept, but like any brand, we need to protect our trademark to prevent confusion—which we were seeing more and more of as Drunk TED grew.”
Now, in order to continue producing the show without being sued, Thurm has to begin the slog of rebranding. “I have to find a name and then hopefully give some indication of what it was,” he explained, “without too many people being like, ‘I don’t know what this is anymore, they changed the name, I don’t understand, I am afraid of the unknown.’”
His show on Wednesday (Drunk TED Talks: Patriarchy) will be the last one operating under the current moniker. He’s received suggestions to change it to Drunk Spread Talks, or Drunk Tod Talks, or Drunk Theodore Talks.
“I didn’t expect that it would get to this point, so I guess this is a good problem to have, but it’s also funny to me that they care about this enough to take action,” Thurm said. “They’ve done more than enough damage to their own brand. They don’t need my help.”