Bloggers hoping to put themselves on a more robust financial footing and close the gap between them and fully paid journalists are vowing to fight on after a New York court dismissed their multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Huffington Post calling for compensation for exploitation of its army of unpaid commentators.
The ruling dismisses the argument made by a group of bloggers that their unremunerated contributions had provided a substantial part of the value of the Huffington Post and that they should therefore be entitled to some of the spoils of the site’s sale to AOL for US$315 million.
Southern District of New York Judge John Koeltl ruled that the bloggers had been fully aware that their work was to be unpaid when they signed up for it, and so any compensation would be to rewrite the terms of their engagement retrospectively.
The lawsuit was launched in April last year by a labor activist and writer, Jonathan Tasini, who posted more than 200 unpaid columns for the Huffington Post before the AOL deal went through. He framed the suit as a class action on behalf of an estimated 9,000 bloggers for the Web site. Now living in Sydney, Tasini told the Australian newspaper that he planned to keep up the fight.
“We’re using the lawsuit to spark a movement among bloggers to set a standard for the future because this idea that all individual creators should work for free is like a cancer spreading through every media property on the globe,” Tasini said.
In his ruling, Koeltl wrote: “No one forced the plaintiffs to give their work to the Huffington Post for publication and the plaintiffs candidly admit that they did not expect compensation. In such circumstances, equity and good conscience counsel against retroactively altering the parties’ clear agreements.”
Since its founding by Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer in 2005, the Post has vehemently resisted criticisms that it was abusing the goodwill of liberal commentators and activists to run a current affairs commentary and aggregation site on the cheap.
It says that its bloggers use the site as a “platform to connect and ensure that their ideas and views are seen by as many people as possible.”
The suit goes to the heart of a long-term question hanging over the blogosphere.
As journalism opens up to a larger pool of writers and commentators, how can the distinction between paid media employees and unpaid bloggers be sustained?
Koeltl is firm on the matter: He rejected the lawsuit “with prejudice” — meaning that the bloggers who brought it will not have a second chance to argue the point.
However, Tasini insisted there was a principle at stake.
“The fundamental question is: How are individual creators going to make a living, and how are they going to create new content that is the basis of culture, democracy and knowledge?” he asked.