A misguided tactic with its heart in the right place

Writer and trade unionist Jonathan Tasini has fought and won battles on behalf of freelance journalists in the past. But his lawsuit against Arianna Huffington and AOL, launched yesterday, seems as likely to alienate current supporters of unpaid Huffington Post bloggers as it does to get more people on their side.

Tasini is asking for US$105 million, one-third of the $315 million that AOL paid for HuffPo, and seeking class action status to represent 9,000 other writers who wrote for the site for free before it was purchased by AOL. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, states, in part:

TheHuffingtonPost.com has been unjustly enriched by engaging in and continuing to engage in the practice of generating enormous profits by luring carefully-vetted contributors, with the prospect of “exposure” (which TheHuffingtonPost.com deceptively fails to verify), to provide valuable content at no cost to TheHuffingtonPost.com, while reaping the entirety of the financial gain derived from such content.

The complaint makes many good points—including a statement that HuffPo has created “an artificially low price” for digital content—but no matter how much we agree with the principles behind the suit, we contend it is a misguided tactic.

A decade ago, Tasini led a suit against the New York Times that resulted in a huge victory for freelance writers. New York Times Co. v. Tasini ended in a decision that stopped newspapers from profiting from the sale of previously published work by freelancers to newspaper databases such as LexisNexis. The precedent-setting ruling made an important distinction between print and digital copyrights, and Tasini’s role in it deserves applause.

But Tasini’s suit against Huffington and AOL is operating with a very different set of circumstances. The freelancers who contributed to the New York Times were working with contracts that recognized their right to compensation. HuffPo‘s unpaid writers agreed to provide the site with free content. Unfortunately, they cannot point to clauses guaranteeing financial compensation if the site were, say, sold to an enormous corporation at some point in the future.

Tasini is already getting a whole lot of press, but not all attention is good. In an email to FoxNews.com about the suit, he wrote, “In this case, blogger-creators are slaves on Arianna’s plantation.” Using this sort of rhetoric is likely to elicit the same sort of reaction the public had to PETA’s comparison of factory farms to Nazi death camps. Such hyperbolic statements cheapen the debate and make it easy for some critics to dismiss an otherwise legitimate cause altogether.

Unless some deception on HuffPo‘s part can be proven, the complaint is very likely to fail. For many outside the writing community, it will represent a (mis)use of the court system that takes resources away from legitimate cases. And worse, besides being unproductive, it could set back the cause of unpaid writers who are fighting to be taken seriously. Writers absolutely deserve to be paid for their work, but it’s time to focus on the reality of the present and a better future, not the past.

Posted on April 13, 2011 at 10:58 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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