Dumbest Lawsuit Ever? HuffPo Sued By Bloggers Who Agreed To Work For Free… But Now Claim They Were Slaves

from the this-is-just-dumb dept

We may have set a new low for idiotic lawsuits. Jonathan Tasini, a freelance reporter who was famously involved in a lawsuit with the NY Times, concerning copyrights on a database of freelancer articles, is now suing the Huffington Post for not paying him while he wrote for it by choice. The basis of the lawsuit is the already discussed fact that a bunch of folks who blogged for the Huffington Post are stupidly upset that Arianna Huffington sold her site to AOL for $315 million, and that they didn’t get any of the money. Of course, they didn’t invest their money in the site. They held no equity and, most importantly, they wrote for the site for free by choice. If they didn’t like the “deal”, they shouldn’t have done it.

In discussing the lawsuit, Tasini seems to pretty much admit that this is a petty, personal vendetta against Huffington:

“In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” he said. “She wants to pocket the tens of millions of dollars she reaped from the hard work of those bloggers….This all could have been avoided had Arianna Huffington not acted like the Wal-Marts, the Waltons, Lloyd Blankfein, which is basically to say, ‘Go screw yourselves, this is my money.'”

In my view, Jonathan Tasini has essentially been turned into a modern day village idiot. He wants to pocket tens of millions of dollars that he did not earn, that he has no legal claim on, taking away from the hard work of Arianna Huffington and the investors and equity holders in the Huffington Post. This all could have been avoided had Jonathan Tasini not acted like the homeless guy on the corner who spits on your windshield, rubs it off “for free” and then demands money for it.

See how easy that is?

“We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community,” Tasini vowed. “No one will blog for her. She’ll never [be invited to] speak. We will picket her home. We’re going to make it clear that, until you do justice here, your life is going to be a living hell.”

Or, tons of people will continue to blog for her for the very same reason Tasini originally blogged for her: because it gives them exposure, and that’s often a hell of a lot more valuable than money. In the meantime, if you’re a publisher, would you ever use work by Tasini? The guy now has a history of biting back at two of the larger publications he wrote for with huge lawsuits. Why would you ever publish his work? It’s a clear liability.

As for the actual legal basis for the lawsuit — well, that’s even weaker than I originally imagined. There’s clearly no contractual claim here, so Tasini is going with an “unjust enrichment” claim, which I can’t see withstanding even the most basic scrutiny. The entire basis of the lawsuit is destroyed by the simple fact that Tasini and others made the choice to blog for Huffington without compensation. If they didn’t like it, they shouldn’t have done it. Where the lawsuit gets really ridiculous is the claim that this effort “depressed the market” for Tasini’s work:

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, TheHuffingtonPost.com’s continued assertion that it, alone, should be enriched by the valuable content provided by Plaintiff and the Classes has the broad detrimental effect of setting an artificially low price for the valuable digital content created by Plaintiff and the Classes, depressing the market for such content and, over the long term, having serious depressing effect on the value of intellectual content being created by Plaintiff and the Classes and on the ability of Plaintiff and the Classes to support themselves as creators of high quality, engaging, digital content.

So, let me get this straight. You, of your own free will, agree to contribute work for free. Then, you file a lawsuit complaining that this is depressing the market for your work? And you expect anyone to take you seriously? If this is depressing the market for your work, try this on for size: don’t work for free!

It then follows with a bizarre and totally irrelevant callout to the Constitution’s copyright clause:

According to Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, the purpose of copyright is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” by allowing creators to be appropriately compensated for their contributions. Yet, despite our founders’ intent, TheHuffingtonPost.com continues to assert that it, alone, should be enriched by the valuable content provided by Plaintiff and the Classes.

Oh, gosh, where to start? First off, this lawsuit has nothing to do with copyright, so calling out the copyright clause is meaningless. Secondly, he’s paraphrasing the Copyright clause inaccurately. Nowhere does the copyright clause say that creators should be “appropriately compensated for their contributions.” It offers them the exclusive rights to those works. And Tasini gave that up when he licensed his works — for free — to the Huffington Post. Finally, the whole point of all of this is that the HuffPo does not say that it, alone, should be enriched. As we’ve pointed out before, if Tasini, or anyone else, got additional work elsewhere due to his work on HuffPo, would Tasini have paid Huffington for that? Of course not.

The claims of the lawsuit get even more ridiculous. I love this one, for example:

Defendants marketed themselves as a forum for news and ideas to get Plaintiff and the Classes to provide valuable content to it for free. In fact, TheHuffingtonPost.com intended to realize substantial revenues from the free content provided.

So… according to Tasini, no forum for news and ideas could ever possibly also be a business? Earth to Tasini: these two things are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, at no point did Huffintgon ever hide the fact that she was running a business. If Tasini was too clueless to recognize he was contributing content to a business that was making money, then that’s his own damn problem, that speaks a lot more to his own level of business cluelessness, rather than any rational legal argument.

We’ve seen plenty of really dumb lawsuits, but this one is really up there. I can’t see a court spending much time on this one before pointing out to Tasini the obvious fact (which he ignores throughout the filing) that he chose to contribute the content of his own free will. Can you imagine the impact on the internet as a whole if Tasini actually won? It would basically uproot the entire concept of the internet. Any site that involved user contributions would have a massive liability.

And, so, the end result of this lawsuit should not be making Huffington a pariah, but making Tasini a complete pariah if you are a professional media organization.

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Comments on “Dumbest Lawsuit Ever? HuffPo Sued By Bloggers Who Agreed To Work For Free… But Now Claim They Were Slaves”

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PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m filing a class action suite against all of you Anonymous Cowards. With you lawsuit you are unjustly enriching yourselves from the hard work of us pseudonymous commenters who are the real driving force behind this website. If it wasn’t for us pseudonymous commenters coming to this website, Mike would have felt a lesser connection to his fans which means he would have written less which would have caused ACs to comment less and therefore have a weaker claim against him. It is us pseudonymous bloggers who deserve to sue Mike more! You’re just freeloaders and if you keep going the American corn growers’ puppies are going to die from counterfeit music-therapy!

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Imagine there’s a contract
It isn’t hard to do

No offer or acceptance
Just pay us what we’re due

Imagine all the AC’s
trolling for all the wealth

Wo hoo oh oh oh.

You may say I’m a freetard,
but I’m not the only one

In fact I comment for free now
Its the only way to have fun

*Note the above song parody is a work in progress and shall be likened to any bards performance, the more supper I get the better I shall sing! 😉

cybernia (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m wondering if the the Fair Labor Standards Act might actually forbid this type of arrangement. “Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.” Now what constitutes an employee is up for debate. I do know that if the employer makes more than $500k/year they have to pay you to do work for them.

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: arrrgh

What you fail to consider and what Tasini touches on but then does not follow through on is the slave aspect.

Initially, we post happily sharing our thoughts and insights, but slowly you work your evil magic on us, clouding our judgment with amusing stories and FUD alike.

Soon we are helpless we must return.

Stripped of our wills we are mindless minions intoxicated on Kool-aid.

In truth we are slaves.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:


Let’s expand this idea. Facebook’s only value is the fact that everyone else is on it. Let’s sue them. Better get your friend count up quick since that would be the bases for payment.

I’d say I’d sue Google for unjustly enriching themselves from my blogger blog, but I don’t think my payment would be that much with my 3 hits max a day.

Overcast (profile) says:


It’s stated that: “?The legal theory we?re going on is one based in common law,? he said. ?This is not a statutory claim?.This is not a contract claim.?

In other words, the fact that the vast majority of Huffington Post?s 9,000 bloggers signed on without any expectation of direct monetary gain is irrelevant to this claim. ?Rather, it?s the value contributed to the Huffington Post, which is very much amenable to class treatment,? says Strauss.”

So they are not claiming there was a contract.

They are claiming that their articles ‘add’ to the overall valuation of the ‘Huffington Post’.

Very subjective concept. Really, most news organizations, blog sites, and such really don’t have ‘value’ in the articles – it’s in their brand name.

Let’s say a popular news outlet such as CNN lost 100% of their data/content/media. No old news stories, not a single shred of text left.

Would CNN still have ‘market value’?

Of course, they could start rolling news articles tomorrow and people would watch – because they want to hear what CNN is reporting.

The news itself is inconsequential. A news site without a good name, could post billions of pages of ‘news’ – but if no one cares to hear what they say, the billions of pages aren’t worth what the power to host them would be…

Reputation means everything in the news/blog business – too bad more companies don’t realize that.

See – no matter how ‘shocking’ the news may be – if you don’t trust the source, the ‘news’ is nothing more than babble. A tabloid is a good example – they don’t sell ‘news’ – they sell ‘entertainment’.

Again, that’s purely subjective as to what’s good and what’s not.

See – they could delete every single post of this guy’s and I bet AOL wouldn’t change their offer, would they?

So is it really worth anything? Perhaps that’s just what they should do.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That is not true. CNN at one point in years past a new source for news. It took content to build that brand image they have now.

Same with the Huffington Post. It was the content whether original or reposted that brought readers and which ended up being worth $315 million to AOL. If the Huff. Post never had such content they would never have been valuated at that price.

This is not to say that this guy’s lawsuit has any merit, but it is true.

HothMonster says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think what he is getting at is AOL didnt pay X amount for the articles they just wanted to buy the name because that is what is valuable. If huffpo’s servers crashed and they lost everything they ever had they would still be worth that much (or close to it) because AOL wasn’t after this guys articles just the Huffpo name.

Of course on your side of the argument the freely contributed articles is what allowed Huffpo’s name to become valuable.

So you both win one cookie.*

*cookies may or may not be imaginary.

cybernia (profile) says:

The problem is nobody wants to pay for anything anymore. Exposure? That’s a crock. Before the internet it was hard enough to make a living as a freelance writer. Now everybody expects you to work for free. I’d be curious to know what percentage of writers for the HuffPo actually wound up getting paid assignments because of writing for them.

It may be a losing lawsuit but I see his point.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You are right. It is very hard to work as a freelance writer. It is even more difficult for writers who want to be paid. For every writer who wants paid for their work, there are 20 writers willing to write for free.

The fact that this guy and 9000 other people were willing to write for free not only devalued themselves, but it also “overvalued” the writers who want to be paid.

testcore (profile) says:

Hard to work?!?

So if it’s “hard to work as a freelance writer”, then don’t damn do it. It’s called the marketplace. I’m sure it’s hard to make a living as a switchboard operator or buggy driver too.

Hell, I didn’t find a particular line of work too viable(bartending) when I was younger, so I moved on to something that actually pays well (s/w development). Not that hard to figure out.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Can you imagine the impact on the internet as a whole if Tasini actually won? It would basically uproot the entire concept of the internet.”

What? Gee Mike, one would think that you would know what the concept of the internet is by now. That statement shows just how clueless you really are, you could not be more wrong. The concept of the internet has to do with connecting computers and networks together, the lawsuit in question has nothing whatsoever to do with that. Get a clue and try again.

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No, let’s take for example,

http://www.elitistjerks.com, a theorycrafting website for World of Warcraft. People go there and do work for free. The site is paid for by the guild members of Elitist Jerks and those who contribute to the site via:

a) the Benenfactors Bar; and
b) doing the theorycrafting work.

Imagine if Tasini won. The theorycrafters could then sue Elitistjerks.com, arguing the same thing as Tasini and point to this ruling as precedent. IF that’s not a disincentive to forums everywhere, then I don’t know what is.

Paul Alan Levy (profile) says:

A sad coda to Tasini v New York Times

Jonathan’s pioneering suit against the New York Times may not have changed the business model but it was an effective cri de coeur against publishers’ past arrogation of digital publishing rights — and he was plainly right on the merits. His years of leadership of the National Writers Union advanced the cause of freelancers. (And I remember the years when he participated actively on the Advisory Board of the Association for Union Democracy, http://www.uniondemocracy.org).

But it is hard to see how he can win this case. If he wins, is his next class action going to be against YouTube for misappropriating the value created by all those video makers?

On one minor point I disagree with Mike’s argument. This case is not unrelated to copyright. But it is the relationship that is the problem — many of Tasini’s claims seem to me to be preempted by copyright law

JC (user link) says:

"This Reminds Me of Stalingrad"

“Earlier this afternoon, I remarked on Twitter how wonderful the Battle of Stalingrad was. Nazis killing Commies and Commies killing Nazis ? killing each other by the thousands, day after day, week after week, for months on end.
It was a win-win, and the only sad thing is that the battle ended before every last one of those totalitarian bastards got killed.
Same deal with the dipsticks who are now suing HuffPo:”…

Mr.E says:

I am going to start a class action against… well… every commercial entity on the internet.

The reason is as follows:

We search on google. By WRITING TEXT. Google shows results. We visit the results, bringing profit to the entity owning the page. The bigger the entity becomes, the more hits it gets from Google when WE write text.

So we can all sue ALL (successful) companies for the portion of their success that WE are responsible for. We added value! We contributed! We deserve our just share of the gains! Really!

known coward says:

village idiot is kinda strong . . .

Yea, village idiot is kinda strong, I do not think this guy is a village idiot, somewhere down their he does have a point.

Whether it is enough to win a lawsuit on its merits?, Probably not. But; what is the value of a free contributor to a website like poohuff, is certainly worth a conversation over a beer.

Al says:

Everyone's a user.

The comments extending the idea to Facebook or Google are spot on. The writers at HuffPo are _users_ of the site. The owners provided a platform that did a very good job of connecting users (writers and readers) – good enough that AOL saw value in buying the online community.

The same point comes up here often: the real value is in the service, not the content. For one group of users to claim their presence created the value misses that point. Absent readers the site would be just as worthless. HuffPo is only valuable with users on both sides.

At some level the writers knew this, or they’d have elected to just write a personal blog instead.

cybernia (profile) says:

Re: Everyone's a user.

“The same point comes up here often: the real value is in the service, not the content.”

Hmmm. Without the content, there would be no service?

I think many of the writers to the HuffPo have professions where writing a blog is merely a sideline or vanity thing. They have people writing that are heavy hitters in their respective fields. When the site first started she had a stable of known names. That’s what started the buzz.

Also, they do have paid staff, including in-house reporters, so people do get paid. The big question is, can you pay some and not others? As I noted in another post, the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits working for free for a business that makes over 500K/yr.

And, the Dept of Labor has cracked down on such free labor like internships. One of the main criteria as to whether an unpaid internship is legal or not is whether it is “training.” If the intern doesn’t displace regular paid workers, and the employer ?derives no immediate advantage,? from the intern, it is legal.

In the case of the HuffPo, since there are paid employees writing for them, is not paying the bloggers a way to avoid hiring people to write? Does that fall under the character of displacing a paid worker? No one is actually displaced but can the definition be broadened to mean avoid hiring people? I don’t know.

Now, does HP derive an “immediate advantage” from unpaid bloggers and other writers? I’d be curious as to how HP sees these writers, in a legal sense.

Anonymously Brave says:

I've been McScrewed!

But Your Honor, had I but known that McDonald’s was going to unjustly enrich itself from all of my hard work, stuffing burgers down my gullet, I would have charged them for my services!

So you see why I’m justified in demanding $99 gajillion from them.

As evidence, I am submitting this photo of my inordinately large ass.

Palemoon (profile) says:

I disagree!!

I disagree with this article and I will be more than happy to tell you why with examples.

Here you have an entity in which the content creators made the site become what it is. Many, many non-paid people and notable “guests” provided much commentary to the site and never saw a penny from it. The site was presenting itself as simply an independent news and information site with a social element provided by visiting commentators who would then carry out debates based upon the provided content. It was pretty much what you could call infotainment, or newstainment. That in itself was nothing new either. What was different was in the content, and amount of, that was provided. Without that, you have nothing but a system without a gimmick to pull anyone in.

Compare it to Facebook. Better… compare it to techdirt or Floor64. If you create something, does that make it a success? NO!! It is people using it which makes it a success, or not.

So if nobody showed up en masse, then what? Huffington Post doesn’t get sold and it’s dismissed as a failure because people consider it a left-wing rag/tabloid.

Fact, many people do not know that the right wing is behind the site as it was co-founded by, and initially operated by, a fellow by the name of Andrew Breitbart. But let’s not talk about that Mr. Masnick, you must not feel anyone here is interested in the truth?

The fact is, what was presented as something that couldn’t be bought off (they were), which would not be influenced by advertisers (they were) and were to remain independent and generating only enough income so as to keep the site operational… why did they suddenly open a DC bureau and start wanting to sell themselves to the highest bidder, which is all the rage now? Taking something that produces nothing, has no tangible assets and then selling it for mega amounts of money.

That would be akin to you starting up techdirt, allowing 5 other people to help you run it, then one of the other people sells it out from under you.

What keeps that from happening? Contracts and written agreements. Right?

What do you think exists between Huffington Post and their content providers? These people were USED in order to facilitate a money making venture. They did all the work, Arianna sold it out from under them while telling them she was forever going to remain an independent entity. There was no disclosure about the true nature of Huffington Post’s future plans.

Mr. Masnick, you can thank me whenever you get around to it.


Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: I disagree!!

The fact is, what was presented as something that couldn’t be bought off (they were), which would not be influenced by advertisers (they were) and were to remain independent and generating only enough income so as to keep the site operational…

None of those things are facts.

That would be akin to you starting up techdirt, allowing 5 other people to help you run it, then one of the other people sells it out from under you.

You see, that can’t happen because I own a controlling stake in the company. Tasini and the others did not. That’s the key point. If Tasini did own a stake in the company then he would have been paid for the acquisition.

Honestly, I’m amazed that people don’t understand how equity works.

What keeps that from happening? Contracts and written agreements. Right?

No. Equity.

What do you think exists between Huffington Post and their content providers? These people were USED in order to facilitate a money making venture. They did all the work, Arianna sold it out from under them while telling them she was forever going to remain an independent entity. There was no disclosure about the true nature of Huffington Post’s future plans.

This is entirely incorrect. No one ever said that it was going to remain independent, and the whiners had no equity stake at all.

Mr. Masnick, you can thank me whenever you get around to it.

For what? For your near total confusion?

pieceofcake says:

From Merge-Left:

Arianna Huffingtons World (Part 7)

Y?all probably noticed. I took a break from ?my world? yesterday, because I?m not always in the mood to mutate into a sixty year old Ex-Greek-American-Republican-Democrat?Slaveowner and sometimes I get this impression that y?all (anywhoo) ? are not too crazy about ?my world?. But today I can promise you guys are going to love it ? BECAUSE ? can you believe it: One of my slaves had the nerve to come up with this lawsuit. Which is kind of ?cool? because I love to put down slaves ? specifically if they claim that ?the Huffington Post?s bloggers essentially have been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington?s plantation.? Not only is this line of attack painfully original, mirroring as it does Tim Rutten?s comparison of HuffPost to a slave ship, it?s also, as was Rutten?s metaphor, deeply funny. As Mattington Welchpost, editor-in-chief of Reasonpost, put it: There is a key difference between ?slavery? and ?voluntarily slavery?. For example, in slavery, it was not uncommon to be deprived of your freedom, separated from your family, whipped by an overseer, and raped by your boss. In ?voluntarily slavery? I don?t have to do that AT ALL anymore. AND furthermore I can use all these cool lawyer words on my slaves like: ?without merit? and then mix it with cute jokes like : ?I am hesitant to take any time away from aggregating adorable kitten videos to respond?. But the suit touches on so many important issues about the current state of the media, the kittens will have to wait.

(and wasn?t that funny? You know slaveowners nowadays have to be REALLY fuuunny!) ? or as Hufftechdirt? Mike Maspost, who sliced and diced claim by claim, writes: ARIANNA -(ME) can be compared to ?the modern day village villains? ?(like the Facebook dude) ? who ?want to pocket millions of dollars that they did not earn, that they have no legal claim on, taking away from the hard work of their slaves? and get celebrated for it!!

A? holery is soo uebercool!

And the famous ?Bottom line: the vast majority of the slaves are thrilled to contribute ? and we?re thrilled to have them. (and to make lots and lots of dough with them) ? Indeed, we are inundated with requests from who want to use our platform. Helpful idiots are looking to join the party, not go home early. And the key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, Millions of people shift their focus from passive observation to active participation. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating Facebook pages, editing photos, uploading videos, and making ?Free content? ? I (ME) can milk to the UTMOST degree ? and I even found some other idiot who paid ME 300 Mill for it!

And I?ll give the last word to PosttechHuffdirt?s Mashuff: ?This all could have been avoided had Jonathan Tasini ?and all the other slaves not been such ?voluntarily slaves??

Well ONE has to ?own? them ? Why not ME?

Okay?! back to those adorable kittens?

Xarkonul (user link) says:

The Huffington Post?s Censorship

I tried to post something in The Huffington Post on Thursday, April 14, 2011, but as usual, what I call ?The Huffy Don?t Post? censored me. Here is the text of my deleted comment,

?Mr. Tasini may have a weak case from a purely legal standpoint, but sometimes plaintiffs win such cases if others recognize that the defendants have committed serious injustices.

A stronger breach of contract lawsuit against The Huffington Post would involve the website?s unethical ?Community and Commenting Guiding Principles,? which claim that ?we never censor comments for political or ideological reasons.?

When I used The Huffington Post?s own figures to create my ?Joe Averageguy? analogy, which argues that the overall global temperature has leveled off since 1998, The Huffington Post deleted my subsequent comments and later removed my profile, Xarkonul.

I agreed to what I thought was a mutually beneficial contract with The Huffington Post, and I upheld my part of the bargain by providing fact-based content with no threatening and/or abusive language, but The Huffington Post broke its promise not to censor me for my beliefs. At the very least, Arianna Huffington?s website should admit that it censors its ideological opponents.

Peace out,




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