A lot of people blogged for The Huffington Post for free between 2005 and 2011. But after Huffpost was sold to AOL for $315 million in 2011, they had second thoughts about their generosity. They filed a class action seeking compensation for their work based on claims of unjust enrichment and deceptive business practices, seeking one-third of that money for the bloggers. The trial court, and now the Second Circuit, rejected their claims. As the Second Circuit stated early this week in Tasini v. AOL (2d Cir. Dec. 12, 2012):
Plaintiffs’ basic contention is that they were duped into providing free content for The Huffington Post based upon the representation that their work would be used to provide a public service and would not be supplied or sold to “Big Media.” Had they known that The Huffington Post would use their efforts not solely in support of liberal causes, but, in fact, to make itself desirable as a merger target for a large media corporation, plaintiffs claim they would never have supplied material for The Huffington Post.
The problem with plaintiffs’ argument is that it has no basis in their Amended Complaint. Nowhere in the Amended Complaint do plaintiffs allege that The Huffington Post represented that their work was purely for public service or that The Huffington Post would not subsequently be sold to another company. To the contrary, plaintiffs were perfectly aware that The Huffington Post was a for-profit enterprise, which derived revenues from their ubmissions through advertising. Perhaps most importantly, at all times prior to the merger when they submitted their work to The Huffington Post, plaintiffs understood that they would receive compensation only in the form of exposure and promotion. Indeed, these arrangements have never changed.
The case puts me in mind of the observations of a great American writer:
Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.
In an earlier time, I think Ms. Huffington would rarely have been required to lift a paintbrush.