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Community Disorganization

By 7 March 2011 No Comment

Following the announcement of the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, all of which will, apparently, be kept by a few founders, some of its writers are organizing a strike to protest the level of their wages, which is zero.

The leader wrote that “it is unethical to expect trained and qualified professionals to contribute quality content for nothing,” and proposed a system of collective bargaining over pay. The writers also want a clearer demarcation between “paid promotional content and writers’ work.”

“Unethical” is an odd characterization, when the pay is the result of a free bargain among consenting adults. If someone offers to put up your scribbling on a particular platform, but offers no money, you are free to accept or decline. If you accept, it is for your own reasons of ego or self-promotion, and because the deal seems better to you than the alternatives.

From the standpoint of a contracts lawyer, the writers were just dumb. Before devoting their sweat equity to building up the enterprise, they should have bargained for shares of stock. After all, many start ups every year use precisely this model whereby the contributors of intellectual capital and the contributors of financial capital agree in advance on the division of any ultimate pay-out.

So what is really going on is not the “unethical” nature of free work, but an outraged sense of betrayal of community.

The HuffPo writers apparently thought they were engaged in some sort of joint political enterprise to serve as a major source for communicating Progressive political ideas to the American public. In this perception, it is like a galley in which the officers on the quarterdeck and the serfs at the oars are all contributing to the common enterprise.

This assumption turns out to have been mistaken, in that the galley was actually a trading vessel, and now the officers are keeping all the profits of the voyage, appropriating the output of the rowers.

The contracts lawyer might have some fun with this, examining the archives of emails to see just how the officers represented the whole deal. It might turn out that the writers were told this was a non-profit community organization – all for one and one for all and all that — and they might actually have a good legal claim that they were misled into working for free.

But the bigger problem is with the basic concept that vague free standing communities provide an alternative organizational form to the hard-nosed deals produced by contract and employment law.

It is perfectly possible for people of like mind to get together and donate skills and time to a cause; it happens all the time, and it is one of the great strengths of civil society. But the “community” form also lends itself to abuse, such as inducing the kid in the third world to write free software to increase the value of U.S.-branded computers. (The head of Sun Microsystems once characterized a major open source software license as imposing on its users a “predatory obligation to disgorge IP back to the wealthiest nation in the world.”)

Now, if I were one of the people who regularly reads and believes the HuffPo, I would probably call for government regulation – the “Truth in Communities Act” maybe. But it is not really necessary. The old saying says that experience is a hard school, but people will learn at no other, but they do learn, and the next entrepreneur who wants to leverage free content into a fortune will meet with a more skeptical reception, and with demands for greater specificity in organizational form.

As for the projected writers’ union – not a chance. Writers are a dime a gross, and the reserve army of the unemployed is huge. If a writer can establish his/her power as a traffic builder, then he/she will be able to command payment.  If not, not. And there is nothing unethical about it; it is called The World.

Kumbaya image from Clint Gardner’s Photostream.

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