In 1991 a lawsuit filed by a freelance journalist reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that The New York Times owed money to independent writers for reselling their work from its archives. This was a big deal.
In theory, anyway. In fact, all it did was force publishers to get their lawyers to write bulletproof waivers for freelancers to sign. That waiver is a thing of wonder. In it, the writer relinquishes all rights, in perpetuity, to revenue beyond what was paid for initial publication, no matter the medium (including media not yet imagined), no matter where (on earth, at sea or in outer space—literally).
Writers routinely sign these waivers. They generally have no choice. Hence, the somber lesson of that landmark case: There is no right that a court can uphold that raw economic power cannot repeal.
The lead plaintiff in the ’91 case was Jonathan Tasini, and he’s in the news again with a $105 million suit against Arianna Huffington. She’s the rich and resourceful political pundit who created a lively news site called Huffington Post and recently sold it to AOL for $315 million. HuffPost is a hugely popular site, albeit disheveled and slightly cheesy, and most of its content is either purloined (sorry, I mean “aggregated”) from real news outfits, or written by unpaid contributors.
Tasini’s beef has to do with those contributors. He says HuffPost owes its success to the creative work of the unpaid and the unsung, an estimated 9,000 writers in all, and now that Arianna is putting an estimated $100 million of AOL’s money into her own pocketbook, they’re entitled to a little something in the tip jar. Continue reading “Lawsuit against HuffPost targets musty values of the Internet economy”