On one side is the Huffington Post, a for profit company, that based on their TechCrunch profile had raised at least $37 million in investment. In taking that money, the management of the Huffington Post assumed a fiduciary responsibility to generate as high of a return as possible for those investors. In the case of a media company like the Huffington Post, this meant expanding their platform/coverage to attract as many readers/advertisers as possible and then either sell the company or take it public.
On the other side are the bloggers, individuals who for probably various personal and professional motives, voluntarily elected to write blog posts on topics of their choosing, at their leisure and post them on the Huffington Post. These works were not commissioned and the bloggers could have just as easily posted them on their own personal blogs, facebook or one of the numerous other blog/news aggregation sites. Instead they elected to post at the Huffington Post which to my knowledge never implied either publicly or privately that bloggers would receive any type of compensation for their work nor would they have an equity stake in the company.
If a blogger felt the above deal was unfair they had two obvious options. They could contact the Huffington Post directly and negotiate compensation in return for their work or they could not post to the Huffington Post. While I do not know the details of each blogger in the lawsuit, it appears that the vast majority elected to do neither of these things yet still feel they are owed something.
Jonathan Tasini, the writer spearheading the lawsuit goes further by saying his true goals are larger – “This lawsuit is about establishing justice for the bloggers of the Huffington Post and establishing a standard going forward,” he says. “If we want to have a society that has a diverse, vibrant culture, we have to make sure the people that create the content, whether it be words, images, drawings, photographs – those people have to be compensated fairly.”
While I vehemently disagree that there is a need to establish “justice” for a group of individuals who voluntarily entered into an arrangement that does not appear to have been breached by the Huffington Post, his point about compensating creators has more resonance. What Tasini misses though, is that there is more to creating $278 million in value for investors than just creating content. There was an enormous amount of risk assumed and none of it by the bloggers.
Imagine that instead of being purchased by AOL, the Huffington Post had failed completely. For the bloggers who filed the lawsuit, the only difference between the two scenarios is that they would have no one to sue. Since they did not invest any money, there was nothing to lose. Since they were not employees, they did not forgo other income opportunities, have restrictions on what type of businesses they could engage in or even have a job to lose while posting for the Huffington Post. This is in sharp contrast to the actual investors and employees who did put at risk millions of dollars and have real opportunity costs of taking a job at the Huffington Post.
What is most confusing about Tasini’s position is how easy it currently is for bloggers to be compensated for the overall success of a company. They can either invest in one, become an employee of one or start their own as Arianna Huffington, Michael Arrington and Henry Blodget have done. Any of these three options virtually guarantee that they will get to participate in all possible outcomes, both positive and negative. No lawsuit required. But the bloggers should be warned that trying to create a valuable media property is not a task where you can “Blog as infrequently as you’d like, or as frequently as once or twice a week” to quote the Huffington Post’s Blogging Guidelines, Tips and FAQ.