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A blogger and activist has just filed a class action suit against AOL and its newest acquisition, The Huffington Post. The subject of the suit? HuffPo’s business model of not paying for freelance blog content.┬áIf you’d like to give it a once over, the original class action filing (PDF) is available for download.

Now, I have often been critical of the fact that The Huffington Post does not pay for the vast majority of its content. If the company and the people at the top are making money, then not paying is a bit of a slap in the face. It also devalues the work that bloggers do, “exposure,” being the carrot on a stick that is held out before them in order to get them to produce.

The filing in Manhattan federal court comes in the wake of AOL acquiring The Huffington Post for $315 million. The lawsuit states that $105 million of that amount represents the value of the unpaid blogging work done on the website. Class action status is being sought on behalf of roughly 9,000 unpaid content providers. As yet, that determination has not received judicial approval.

What about the man behind the lawsuit? Don Jeffrey, a writer for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, gives us some background:

The suit was brought by Jonathan Tasini, who is described in the complaint as the lead plaintiff in a successful case against the New York Times over the rights of freelance writers. He was president of the National Writers Union from 1990 to 2003 and sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator from New York in 2006, according to the complaint.

Tasini is no shrinking violet. Tasini v. New York Times was a milestone legal battle over compensation for freelance writers whose articles were archived in online databases. Tasini’s victory in that arena is certainly worth factoring into the equation.

Let’s take a look at who is representing him. Michael Cerkas, a writer for Huliq, gives us some details on Tasini’s lawyer and stance in this case:

Tasini is being represented by Attorney Jesse Strauss, who added, “We intend to prove at trial that the content and services provided by the over 9,000 members of the class created substantial value for the Huffington Post and we hope to establish a strong precedent that in the digital age content producers must be compensated for the value they create.”

Noble in concept, but I doubt their chances in court. After all, the lack on compensation was laid out in the HuffPo terms of service. Still, one can never predict the way that things will resolve once they hit the court room.

I’m not the only one skeptical of the suit’s chances. An unattributed article on MSNBC brings us some input from Columbia Law School:

John Coffee Jr., a professor at New York’s Columbia Law School, said that he thought the lawsuit would likely be dismissed by a judge, as the bloggers’ decision to contribute to the website was a rational one, and that the Internet site was within its rights to profit from the free content.

One of the big questions getting overlooked by those writing about the case is the non-legal ramifications. Blogging, like all social media, is a medium in which backlash is a factor one must always consider. In this case, that backlash might well be coming from contributors rather than an irate audience.

Megan McCardle, business and economics editor for The Atlantic, sums it up succinctly:

But even if the class action is a frivolous waste of time, I wonder if it doesn’t expose some of the weaknesses of the AOL/HuffPo merger. If you build your business around (among other things) having thousands of left-wing writers producing free content, selling out to a large corporation may threaten the stream of free words. You sort of assume that these people hate income inequality in their personal lives as much as they do in the census data.

I think this is the part of the equation to watch. AOL picked up the HuffPo. The legal allegations of deceptive trade practices and unjust enrichment aside they may also find themselves experiencing an exodus of their most prolific content producers.

What are your thoughts? Do the unpaid bloggers deserve compensation or should they have done more due diligence about the terms of service? Will we see waves of bloggers deserting their HuffPo blogs or will things be about the same once this blows over? Let us know in the comments!

Source: “Frustrated and Angry Writers Join in Class Action Suit against Huffington Post,” Huliq, 04/12/11
Source: “AOL, Huffington Post Sued Over Pay for Writers on Website,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 04/12/11
Source: “AOL, Huffington Post sued by unpaid writers,” MSNBC, 04/12/11
Source: “HuffPo Writers Launch Class Action,” The Atlantic, 04/13/11
Image by AOL, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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