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 multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Huffington Post calling for compensation for exploitation of its army of unpaid commentators.
The ruling, slipped out relatively unnoticed at the end of last week, 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 $315m. The bloggers demanded a third of the sale price, $105m, in compensation.
John Koeltl, who presides over a US district court in New York, rejected the argument outright. He 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 last April by a labour activist and writer, Jonathan Tasini, who posted more than 200 unpaid columns for the HuffPo before the AOL deal went through. He framed the suit as a class action on behalf of an estimated 9,000 bloggers for the website. Now living in Sydney, where he is writing a book and blogging at www.workinglife.org, Tasini told the Australian newspaper that he planned to keep up the fight for compensation. "We're using the lawsuit to spark a movement and an organising effort 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."
In his ruling, Koeltl writes: "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.
"The plaintiffs entered into their transactions with the defendants with full knowledge of the facts and no expectation of compensation other than exposure. 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 HuffPo 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 claims 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 also goes to the heart of a long-term question hanging over the blogosphere. As journalism opens up to a vastly larger pool of writers and commentators, how can the distinction between paid media employees and unpaid bloggers be sustained?
Nobody has the answer to that question, which will continue to be a talking point for years to come. Koeltl is firm on the matter, however: he rejected the lawsuit "with prejudice" – meaning that the bloggers who brought it will not have a second chance to argue the point.
But Tasini told the Australian there was a central 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?"
Guardian News and Media 2012
Photo by World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons