Ever since The Huffington Post sold itself off to AOL for an enormous pile of treasure, the legions of people who've been happily blogging for HuffPo for free for all these years have been asking themselves: Hey, shouldn't we get a piece of that pie? Now, they are demanding it.
Forbes' Jeff Bercovici reports that a group of HuffPo bloggers are filing a class action suit against the company seeking some of that sweet, sweet scratch. The man behind the suit is Jonathan Tasini, a writer (for HuffPo, among other places), union organizer, and longtime head of the National Writers Union who successfully sued the New York Times over freelancer rights ten years ago, winning an $18 million settlement.
Tasini, in an interview, said HuffPost was engaging in breach of contract with its contributors because of an "implied promise" of compensation. "Some people were given some promises about future payments," he said, declining to provide specifics...He described his legal theory as "a novel argument."
Hmm, yes. We're not lawyers, but we're fairly certain that a group of people that freely and without coercion agrees to write for free cannot simply run to court years later and ask for a hundred million dollars just because they think they deserve it, for blogging so well.
We are sympathetic to the HuffPo writers. The company has blown them off rather rudely. Writers do deserve to be paid, and HuffPo can afford to pay them. But the writers should understand that this is a political and a PR battle, not a legal one. Unless Tasini has some secret memos from five years ago promising payment to writers, this case will probably be nothing but more leverage in negotiations with AOL—a nuisance, rather than a real legal threat.
Shame is the tool that HuffPo writers should use in this case. Shame on Arianna, the great progressive, for exploiting her very own writers. If shame doesn't work, they should boycott. That's the easiest way to find out whether HuffPo really needs those writers at all.
UPDATE: HuffPo spokesman Mario Ruiz sends the following statement:
The lawsuit is wholly without merit. As we've said before, our bloggers use our platform — as well as other unpaid group blogs across the web — to connect and help their work be seen by as many people as possible. It's the same reason people go on TV shows: to promote their views and ideas. HuffPost bloggers can cross-post their work on other sites, including their own. Aside from our group blog, to which thousands of people from around the world contribute, we operate a journalistic enterprise with hundreds of paid staff editors, writers, and reporters.
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