Unpaid reporters lose suit against Huffington Post, AOL

May 2, 2012

A U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York has dismissed a class action lawsuit filed by five unpaid reporters, finding no evidence of unjust enrichment or deceptive business practices by the Huffington Post and AOL.

Five individuals, led by well-known freelancer Jonathan Tasini, filed suit on behalf of the entire class of unpaid content providers who had been selected or recruited to blog for the Huffington Post website (www.huffingtonpost.com). The majority of the class included “professional or quasi-professional writers.” The named plaintiffs had submitted “significant volumes of content over varying periods of time” to the website. Tasini had led a challenge to use of freelance content in the ’90s, ending with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that required publishers to remove content from websites and digital libraries that they had technically not contracted with freelancers to use.

The lawsuit was filed subsequent to AOL’s purchase of the Huffington Post.  The reporters alleged that the failure of the Huffington Post and AOL to compensate them for adding value and thus boosting the purchase price of The Huffington Post was unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs sought restitution of $105 million of the $315 million purchase price AOL paid for the Huffington Post for content submitted to the website and for promoting that content on their own sites and social media feeds.

The court held that it was clear that the plaintiffs expected only exposure from their works when they signed on, not any monetary compensation. Although there may have been “enrichment” to Huffington Post, it was not unjust.

The court reasoned that plaintiffs gave their work freely knowing that there would be no financial compensation, despite the court’s acknowledgment that “The unpaid submissions are arguably the website’s most valuable content, both because of their effect of ‘optimizing’ the website’s ranking in search engines such as Google (thus attracting more viewers to the website) and because they allow The Huffington Post to keep production costs low.”  Simply because the company profited more than the reporters expected did not permit the reporters to change the terms of their original agreement, reasoned the court. 

The case is:  Tasini et al v. AOL Inc. et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-02472.