When AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, some saw it as a validation of the Web 2.0 model of new media: aggregation, curation and providing a platform for bloggers, many of whom donated their services in return for the attention of readers. Others, however, seem to feel that founder Arianna Huffington owes those unpaid writers something for her success, and now one blogger has put that idea to the test with a class-action lawsuit that claims The Huffington Post is guilty of “unjust enrichment” for profiting from the labor of others. Web 2.0 has grown up, it seems, and decided to call in the lawyers.
The blogger behind the lawsuit, Jonathan Tasini, is no stranger to this kind of legal battle. He was also involved in a landmark suit against the New York Times a decade ago, in which a group of freelance writers argued publishers were using their work illegally by distributing it online and through various electronic services. The argument in that case was that writers had been paid freelance rates, but they had only given up their rights for print publication, not electronic publication. The case was settled for $18 million in 2001.
Tasini also happens to be a union leader, and he is dragging out every piece of classic union lingo he can muster in defence of his class-action claim (which is embedded below). “In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” he told Forbes magazine. Tasini vowed to picket the founder’s home and make her life “a living hell,” and said that “anybody blogging for the Huffington Post now is a scab” and a “strike breaker.”
Tasini — who wrote sporadically for Huffington Post for the past several years, knowing he wouldn’t be compensated — isn’t the only one to pull out the strike talk. The Newspaper Guild endorsed the idea of a strike against the site shortly after it was acquired by AOL, saying “working for free does not benefit workers and undermines quality journalism,” and that writers were being asked to “honor this electronic picket line.”
Tasini admits that his lawsuit isn’t about The Huffington Post breaching any contract with writers, since the freelance writers and bloggers who worked for the site didn’t have a contract, and most apparently understood they would never be compensated other than in pageviews. But he argues the huge sums that the company made by selling itself to AOL justify paying writers something anyway — as much as $100 million. In effect, he and others are saying The Huffington Post may not have a legal duty to pay them, but there is some kind of moral obligation to do so.
This argument has come up in virtually every case where a “Web 2.0” company has been acquired for large sums of money. YouTube was criticized by some for not paying those who created and uploaded videos after it was bought by Google for $1.6 billion in 2006, and Flickr was also the subject of similar criticism from some users after Yahoo bought it for $35 million in 2005. The only reason sites such as Wikipedia aren’t hit with similar criticisms, apparently, is that they don’t actually make any money and therefore they can’t pay anyone anything.
Is there any real merit to Tasini’s claim? Not really, as Jack Shafer at Slate and others have pointed out. The reality is that many people donate their services on the web and they are compensated in all kinds of non-monetary ways. But in every case, they do so knowing there will be no direct compensation from the site they are using.
Tasini made the same deal when he agreed to write for The Huffington Post. Why did he do so? He hasn’t said, but presumably for the same reason others did — in order to gain visibility, and because writing for the site was easier or more productive than writing posts for his own blog (where he tries to defend his claim).
Did Arianna Huffington build hundreds of millions of dollars in value in part based on the work of others? Yes, and those freelancers and bloggers volunteered to do this. Not only that, but Huffington has been actively pushing AOL to hire more professional journalists and use freelancers less since she took over as the head of AOL’s content operations, something Tasini and the various writers’ unions should theoretically support, since it means full-time jobs and benefits. She said recently she plans to hire as many as 800 journalists to man the local bureaus AOL has been opening as part of its Patch.com hyper-local media operation.
Those are far larger numbers of writers and journalists than any other traditional or new media outlet has been hiring lately. In other words, Huffington may be the best friend that online writers have right now, whether they like it or not.