Giving and taking back

It’s a bit late to say much of interest about AOL’s acquisition of Huffington Post (other than to wonder whether they ever had any senses to take leave of) but the news that Jonathan Tasini is suing HuffPo is worthy of comment.

Tasini has form when it comes to lawsuits. His name is on one of the most famous, tedious and pointless copyright cases of recent years. In that case he was arguing, basically, that journalists should be paid again when the publications which commissioned them made the content available through databases.

Based on that case, you would expect that Tasini is the kind of writer who is strictly coin-operated. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’ll let any publisher use his words without paying him for his efforts.

Yet, it seems, he was a willing, despite being unpaid, contributor to Huffington Post. Like many others he chose the nebulous and intangible reward of exposure through her site in preference to money. In his case it was to publicise his senate election campaign.

Now, though, he says he deserves some of the absurd sum she received for her site, because although he knew he wouldn’t be paid and didn’t ask to be paid, he thought maybe he would be one day anyway. So the money she has made in the transaction is “unjust enrichment” and he and his fellow bloggers deserve a third of it. $105m.

Now, in my view the amount paid for Huffington Post was unjustified by any sane assessment of value, but it wasn’t unfair on anybody (except, perhaps, AOL shareholders). She has done extraordinarily well to have pulled off such a deal, the fact that she managed to persuade so many people to work for her for free is testament to some kind of skill she must have.

Truth is that contributors to HuffPo knew the deal. Their contributions weren’t done in exchange for shares any more than money. A deal’s a deal, and whinging about it afterwards when you realise you got the raw end of it seems pointless to me. (Who is that guy who sold his Apple shares to Jobs back in the day? He got some trifling sum for them, would be worth billions today. Haven’t noticed him whinging).

And where copyright is concerned, I think that as long as the deal is clear, and you agree to it, then it’s fair and square. That idea, in fact, formed the basis of Tasini’s previous lawsuit, where because publishers hadn’t explicitly obtained rights to use content in databases, contributors demanded to be paid again. Notably, Tasini’s case this time doesn’t mention copyright.

There’s plenty of use of content on the internet which is both unrewarded and infringing – that would seem like a better target for lawsuits.

In the meantime, there’s a lesson here. If you give someone something valuable without asking for anything in return, don’t be surprised if they end up better off than you.

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