“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Samuel Johnson
Arianna Huffington is being sued by some of her former unpaid bloggers. Jonathan Tasini and the other members of his class action against her complain that they created the value of the Huffington Post with their unpaid writing, and she then sold it to AOL for $315M. The bloggers, of course, got none of that money. The plaintiffs want a cut, at least $105M.
It’s an interesting argument. I’ve been through something like the HuffPo situation, on a much smaller level. For more than twenty years, a bunch of musically inclined members of a Jewish on-campus congregation put together approximately 30 hours of High Holiday services every year, gratis. For most of that time, the congregation made its services available to all comers, gratis. But after a change in rabbis, a ticket charge was instituted. Okay, we who provided the services were graciously allowed to attend all the services (even the ones we weren’t singing in) without buying tickets. Great. But aside from that, we weren’t offered any compensation for our work, even though by that time we had gotten good enough at what we did that almost all of us (6 or 7 people) had turned down paying High Holiday gigs out of loyalty to our congregation. Needless to say, we abandoned the old crowd, and without actually saying anything came to regard the rabbi in question as the liturgical equivalent of Jerry Reinsdorf (for breaking up our Dream Team.)
Huffington’s argument is that the bloggers agreed to work gratis, and that their contracts included absolutely no mention of any compensation if the superblog was sold. They knew what they were getting into, and did it voluntarily. Presumably they did it because being in HuffPo gives a blogger a really great platform to spread her ideas, and is really good for her reputation (and often, for her publishability in paying markets.) But, whatever the reason, they got what they had signed on for and were entitled to nothing more.
The market for writing has undergone some striking changes since I last earned a fair sum of money on the side as a free-lancer. Back then (late ‘80s, early ‘90s), most of the mags I wrote for let me keep the rights unless they paid me (and sometimes even then.) There were a couple of local publications that didn’t pay and also kept the rights, but it was easy enough to succeed as a free-lancer without doing business with them. Apparently that is no longer the case. Unpaid writers are now routinely expected to give up the rights to their work. What hasn’t changed is that one is likely to make a lot more money free-lancing articles than putting out a book with a smallish press. My daughter did that, and got less in her advance than I made in a year of free-lancing at roughly the same time. (And, like most book authors, she never saw any money beyond her advance.)
Since my years as a free-lancer, one other interesting event has happened in the world of writing: Ted Kaczynski. Remember the Unabomber? The guy who blew up several people, some of them fatally, to induce the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish his manifesto? Admittedly, he is now doing life in a supermax federal prison, but he may well consider that a fair price to pay for getting published in such august papers. (I didn’t buy the Writer’s Market for that year, but it seems reasonable to assume that it did not include a piece on the Kaczynski method for getting published.)
Anyway, the advent of the blogosphere has changed everything. Here we are, drudging away free, gratis, and for nothing. So far as I know, AOL has not offered to purchase Alexandria. If it did, I really don’t know how I’d respond. Because blogging has changed the economics of writing. It was sort of headed this way anyhow, but now there seems no mistaking it: the blogosphere is worth more to its writers than to its readers. If there were any real logic to The Market Economy, we writers would be paying you readers for logging on here. Getting published, even in this rather obscure corner, is worth more to the writer than reading is to the reader. If I had to pay to blog, I wouldn’t be able to, at this phase in the Wired Family’s domestic economy. I would be doomed to waste my sweetness on the desert air. Dunno about the rest of y’all.
Tasini’s argument cannot be totally written off. He and his colleagues really did create the value that lured AOL to buy HuffPost. Arianna probably could have single-handedly produced a product of similar quality, but she would have had to give up sleeping and eating to produce anything like the same quantity. Quite possibly, the opportunity to sell at such an amazing price had never occurred to her, at least in the earlier days of the blog, so she cannot necessarily be blamed for not mentioning it in her contracts with writers. But that argument cuts both ways. Huffington was under no obligation to advise her writers of such an unlikely event, much less offer them any portion of the possible profits. But on the other hand, the writers had never explicitly renounced such profits, either. Tasini’s legal argument is known in the trade as “unjust enrichment”—like what happens when a hotel valet finds a suitcase full of money in a just-vacated room.
But if Tasini wins, two things will happen immediately: HuffPo and most other major blogsites will find a way to charge their readers; and they will adopt the same kind of contracts print mags already use for their free-lancers, which grant them minimal payment no matter how well the mag sells.
But don’t worry, gentle reader. Sooner or later, logic will win out, and we will be paying you to read us.