Ivy Tsui is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
After the Huffington Post was sold to AOL for $315 million in February, former HuffPost blogger Jonathan Tasini filed a lawsuit against AOL/Huffington Post and co-founders, Arianna Huffington and Ken Lerer, for “unjust enrichment and deceptive business practices.”
This lawsuit is the next chapter in Mr. Tasini’s work as an activist for authors’ rights, particularly relating to authors’ copyright in online versions of their work. We have written previously on the proceedings in New York Times Co. v. Tasini, here and here.
Mr. Tasini’s current lawsuit, in which he is seeking class-action status, argues that bloggers are entitled to an estimated $105 million of the $315 million that AOL paid to buy the website. The Huffington Post has two kinds of writers: staff writers and bloggers. Staff writers have deadlines and specific assignments, but bloggers are under no obligation to write – they are free to blog whenever they like, whatever they like. Mr. Tasini fell into the latter category. Yet, after submitting some 215 blogs, Mr. Tasini claimed that blogging is slavery, and that
the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation. 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.’
The Huffington Post responded by saying that the lawsuit was “utterly without merit”. Arianna Huffington also analogized the Huffington Post with other websites and said that the Internet has changed the way that traditional writers have worked. Various websites, including Facebook and Twitter, all have their content generated by people who want to “tell the stories of what is happening in their lives.” She stated,
Free content — shared by people who want to connect, share their passions, and have their opinions heard — fuels much of what appears on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, Flickr and YouTube.
It might be difficult to claim unjust enrichment when the Huffington Post has provided a platform for Mr. Tasini, and in particular other bloggers, to promote, to gain exposure and, hopefully, to make names for themselves. However, I wonder whether Mr. Tasini owns all the rights to his work published on the Huffington Post website or whether he relinquished all his rights once he posted the articles on the website. If such a property right claim could be established, then should Mr. Tasini be appropriately compensated when the AOL ‘bought’ his work?