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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

I will gladly pay you ... who are we kidding?

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The story of a class action suit against Huffington Post broke this morning. While I tend to side with the writers in these things, I have to admit that I have mixed feelings.

Here's the scenario as I understand it. HuffPo told bloggers they couldn't compensate them, but they'd get tons of exposure. And then they sold out to AOL for over $300 million, partly on the strength of that unpaid exposure. Yeah, it sucks. Yet, if you agree to write without compensation and without contract, you probably don't have a legal leg to stand on. 

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV. I've not seen the suit, so it's possible there are are other points that may be of interest to a court. I don't know. I just know what I've read so far.

There are also rumors - most of which have been hotly denied by AOL - that since the acquisition various bloggers have been told they have been laid off, but were asked to continue to contribute for free. I also saw an article somewhere (and lost the link, darn it. No, here it is!) suggesting that the mass layoffs may be in violation of some labor laws. Again, that's one for the lawyers to sort out.

Morally, this whole thing sucks. As a freelancer, I see large sites (mostly content farms) making big money off of the backs of bloggers who are paid little or nothing for their contributions. I've often blogged about people who propose to gladly pay me Tuesday for content I provide today. Tuesday rarely comes, if ever. Still, it's my decision to take the job or not. Sometimes I'll do something for the exposure, or to help out a friend or a cause I believe in. When I do that I (hopefully) go into it with my eyes open. 

What's the answer here? I'm not sure. There are always bloggers waiting in the wings to replace those who quit. It's your own decision, and your risk. You might want to insist on a contract or letter of agreement (again, I'm not a lawyer) to cover terms. One of the "enticements" that's been dangled in front of me several times is a cut of revenue or "we'll pay you once we start making money." Well, that just opens up the door to Hollywood-style accounting. Get it in writing. They expect you to behave like a professional, and you should expect the same from them. At the very least you'll want to get in writing what rights you are granting them and what you reserve, and for what term you grant those rights. Why? You may decide down the road that these blog posts would make an excellent book. If you provide visual art (photos, cartoons, illustrations) you may want to resell those. You should at least have the opportunity to profit from your work in other media. (Yes, you may need an attorney to help you draft a model contract or letter of agreement.)

I can't stress enough that it's your decision whether or not you want to blog for a third party for no pay. Every writer's situation is different. What works for you may not work for me. But in any case, you should cover your bases. 

Now, I blog here. I maintain a couple of other sites. I don't do it for money (I take no ads). But I'm also the owner of the sites, so that's not an issue. If you want to blog for the love, please do. Get your own site, hold control over your own material. If you want to cross-post and cross-promote, take the time to ensure that you're not giving up all the rights to your material (and that you're not asking others to do the same if they post on your site). 

Morally, I'm with the writers. Legally, I don't know if they have any recourse. Too bad, really. I'd like to be hopeful that this will lead to some discussion and recognition of the value of the labor of unpaid contributors. To be honest, I don't hold out much hope on that front. And that's too bad.

Update: Here's the suit. (via Cheap Signals. Thanks, Gretchen.)

Tags: Writing

Filed under: Writing            
4/12/2011 7:53:17 AM
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