The Case for Paying Conference Speakers

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 25, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Should speakers be paid at free software conferences? The question never occurred me until I heard a recent Finux Tech podcast talking about the issue in relation to security conferences. Now, however, I have to admit that the guests on the podcast make a compelling case, if only as a token sign of respect.

Fifteen years ago, unpaid speakers were the rule. Conferences were community-based, and many attendees were at the start of their careers, and happy just to get together with one another. Probably, the sponsors didn't exist either. That is still the case today with community-based conferences like the locally organized, BSides, where no one is paid, so I am not talking about them.

Free software conferences are on a much grander scale today, yet unpaid speakers are still the norm. Some conferences may pay room, board, and travel expenses for keynote speakers, but the majority of speakers receive no more than a free conference pass. I imagine that the recipients of this largess are as pleased to get it as I am to get a media pass, but these are expenses to get the speakers to appear, and do not compensate for their preparation and time off-work.

Today, though, those who were once happy volunteers are now veteran professionals. Arron Finnon, the organizer of the podcast, points out that speakers are paid in other professions, so perhaps honorariums are overdue as a recognition of their expertise.

Arguing the Case
According to Finnon and his guests, conference organizers are likely to suggest that speakers talk for the exposure. And it is true that some conferences like Defcon can be a useful way to publicize a job hunt. Elsewhere, perhaps speakers can increase their reputation. However, as I writer, I regularly hear the same argument when someone wants me to write for free (in fact, I received such an email earlier today), and I know from long experience that the exposure from some gigs is more often minimal to non-existent. As Meredith L. Patterson wryly observed on the podcast, when you are trying to survive, "Exposure can kill."

Some conference organizers also excuse themselves from payment on the grounds that they are a non-profit society.  However, as Patterson says, being non-profit does not mean that none of the organizers are paid a salary -- and, in any event, any large event has a budget. Finnon may be right that no one has ever met a rich conference organizer, but, all the same, the issue is often not one of payment vs. non-payment, but of budgetary line items. When a conference chooses to hold a reception at a local landmark, the organizers are choosing to spend money on renting the space, rather than on speakers -- on what Patterson describes as "bread and circuses" rather than on giving speak their due respect.

Of course, paying speakers could mean that conferences require more funding from sponsors, or need to charge attendees more, but that is a matter of priorities. Besides, given that the largest conferences run 3-5 days, with multi-track programming for 6-12 hours each day, would anyone really miss a reduction in the number of speakers. Conference attendees might actually find fewer scheduling conflicts.

At any rate, none of the podcast guests were advocating that speakers be paid at the same rate as A-list celebrities on the lecture circuit. The emphasis is on a honorarium, a token amount that is not meant to cover all of a speaker's time, but a gesture of respect -- and acknowledgment that they are donating their professional time.

According to Chris John Riley, another speaker on the podcast, Black Hat USA gives speakers the choice of extra admissions or a fraction of their value in cash -- an amount that works out to about $200, or, assuming 100 speakers, an additional cost of $20,000. By reassigning priorities, more sponsorship, more expensive admission, or a few less speakers' track, a conference should be able to make such a gesture of respect without greatly altering the scope of the conference.

Changing the Expectations
Finnon's podcast was a follow-up to a blog in which he first articulated his thoughts on this subject. Ironically, he says, organizers of larger conferences are the ones who wrote to him explaining why paying speakers is impractical. By contrast, it is the volunteer-based conferences -- the ones he specifically excluded from his remarks -- who responded most enthusiastically to his ideas, asking what they could do..

However, another guest on the podcast was Mattias Baath, an organizer of the Swedish conference Sec-T. Baath has posted an outline of Sec-T purposes and philosophy, and is inviting other conference organizer to comment in order to establish a set of common practices at conferences. In addition to such suggestions as that conference organizers should be excluded from speaking to prevent any possibility of favoritism, Baath also advocates paying speaker honorariums, and standardizing them at each conference at the price of one admission. Free events would be exempt from honorariums.

In addition, Baath proposes 1000€ prizes for excellence in submissions and presentations. Like the honorariums, speakers would have the option to donate the prizes to the conference. The implication appears to be is that what matters is the gesture, since full compensation for each speakers' efforts is impractical.

The idea is a radical departure from accepted practices. However, at least on paper, it seems workable with minimal disruption. Recently, conventions have adjusted to having codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies, so there seems no reason that they could not agree on a standard for treating speakers as well.

As Riley says, ""as an industry we've matured. we're no longer in the back room, happy someone wants to hear about what we're doing. We've moved to the point where this is our job, this isn't just something we're doing on a weekend any more. [And] If this is what we do for a living, then we expect to get paid, or at least to have our costs covered when we do this for other people"

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