April 13, 2011

You’ll Soon Receive My Bill

I’ve never had a whole lot of use for the Huffington Post. It’s a cesspool of celebrity worship, anti-vax bullshit, and every kind of non-Christian woo imaginable. But it’s made Arianna Huffington rich(er), so it must be doing something right. The big bump came late last year, when AOL bought into the site to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

It’s my understanding that a lot of HuffPo content comes from bloggers who agreed to write pieces for free in return for the “exposure” the HuffPo platform provided them. Now that Arianna is rolling in dough, they want a taste. Actually, they’re demanding one – by suing (complaint here). Given that HuffPo/AOL never agreed to pay them, it comes down to a common law equitable theory called unjust enrichment. It’s been a long time since I crossed paths with that in law school, but I share Jeralyn’s skepticism at the whole endeavor (Eugene Volokh is more blunt, calling the claim a “loser.")

When it comes to rhetoric, at least, the plaintiffs have come out guns blazing:
Jonathan Tasini, the labor activist and writer spearheading a class action against AOL and the Huffington Post, did not mince words when explaining his motives to the press this morning.

‘In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,’ he said.
Eh, no, not really. In fact, that’s an analogy that’s as historically unfounded as it is offensive. Here’s a hint, Tasini – if neither you nor your ancestors were brought in chains to the United States and forced to write for HuffPo at the barrel of a gun (and subject to arrest should you escape) it’s not anything like slavery.  Not even in the same league, much less the same ballpark.

I understand that somebody who works for free on a project that eventually becomes hugely profitable might feel fucked over a bit. But, then again, you asked for it, didn’t you? I grasp that, as Radley Balko explains, sometimes you write for free to get “a foot in the door.” But, again, you made the choice to do so. Unless you were coerced in some way, or lied to, you just don’t seem to have a leg to stand on.

And even then, you might want to think twice. A couple of years ago, John Scalzi (who, in addition to being a writer and blogger, is president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America), wrote a post lambasting a new publisher for soliciting works while paying next to nothing for them. It generated a lot of comments, including from aspiring writers complaining that sometimes low pay (or no pay) is the best you can do when breaking in. In a response post, he wrote:
I get that some aspiring folks think this is all about writers who have ‘made it’ being snobs and forgetting what it was like to be toiling away in the newbie writer salt mines. Well, leaving aside the fact that a ‘pro’ rate of five cents a word means that even long-standing pros aren’t out of the salt mines, they’re just standing nearer to the fresh air, the reason the pros yammer on about this is because we do remember what it’s like to be newbies and to believe that any publication is better than no publication. But it wasn’t true then, it isn’t true now, and it won’t be true in the future, either. It’s tough to hear, but it’s the truth. So make sure you’re getting something for the nothing (or next-to-nothing) you’re getting paid. If you’re not, hold on to your work until you can get something, or, alternately, recognize that if the only market you can get interested in your work is one that hardly exists, maybe the best thing you can do for the work in question is hit it with a shovel and bury it by the river.
That makes a lot of sense, if what you want to do is become a professional writer. If all you’re worried about is spewing words into the air (as I’m doing now!), it doesn’t really apply. But you’ve got to decide going in which way you want it. If you’re willing to forgo payment at the start, you don’t get to change your mind once it appears that the words you write might have some monetary value.

In other words, HuffPo bloggers – shut your traps and back to the keyboards with you!

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