Huffington Post Law Suit: Should You Work For Free?

Last Updated May 9, 2011 11:25 AM EDT

Arianna Huffington managed to sell The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 Million. Not a bad deal for Ms. Huffington, especially since she hasn't even had to pay many of the people who provide content for her site.

Some of the bloggers, led by Jonathan Tasini are now suing, saying they should be paid for all the work they did. Forbes quotes Tasini as follows:
In my view, 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.'
Modern day slaves? Now, I know voluntarily entering into an agreement to provide content for free with the absolute ability to quit at any time is almost like slavery, except for the part where it is nothing like slavery. You don't gain sympathy with hyperbole. At least you don't from me.

Now, while I'm in favor of people getting paid for their writing (after all, I am a rational person), the time to worry about getting paid is before you do the writing. I think Walter Olson, of Overlawyered summed it up quite succinctly when he wrote:
The site [Huffington Post] generally promised to pay nothing to its bloggers, and has lived up to that promise.
I'm not a lawyer, so I shall refrain from making too many legal type comments about this case (although, the legal blogs I read seem to think he doesn't have a chance and Eugene Volokh is even making fun of the case). And I'm 100% avoiding a discussion of whether or not any volunteer work is a violation of wage and hour laws. It is a real issue, but I'm avoiding it right now.

My question is, is it ever worth it to work for free? I'm not talking about volunteering for your local good cause. I'm talking about working for for profit organizations for free or for minimal payment.

I used to write a weekly column for US News. You know how much money I made off of that gig? $0. Not a penny. Not so much of a "hey thanks" when they managed to turn around and sell my articles to Yahoo either.

So, why did I do it? For credibility for one thing. I'd been writing a blog for a long time and this helped set me apart. For another, I got the chance to work with a real, honest to goodness talented editor (Liz Wolgemuth), who helped me a lot. I don't think I'd be writing at BNET (which does pay me) if I didn't have the "free" experience.

But, is it generally worth it to work for free, especially when others are making money off your work? Here are 7 things to think about before you work for free.
  1. What is the benefit to you? Clearly it's not the cash. Will this help your future career? Introduce you to future clients? Look good on your resume?
  2. What else could you be doing with your time? If the time you spend working for free could be put to better use (earning money, for instance, or spending time with your family), do you want to sacrifice that time?
  3. Are you making assumptions? If you assume that if the company gets its big break, you'll be rewarded, but you have no signed document stating that, then don't count on it.
  4. What is the benefit to the company? If the benefit to the company is fairly insignificant and the potential benefit to you is large, then it makes more sense to do it then it does if you're not getting any benefit and the company is making millions of dollars off your free labor.
  5. Is anyone outside the company (and you) benefiting? Lots of companies (for profit and non-profit) do good things for the community. Are other people benefiting?
  6. Are your expectations realistic? If you're expecting that after 3 months of doing free work, they'll start paying you, don't count on it. If you're expecting that it will look good on a resume, that's realistic.
  7. Is there an official end date? For instance, if this is an internship, it will end. You'll take your knowledge and go on your merry way. If it's an open ended relationship, will it eventually drag you down?
What has been your experience with either working or free or turning down the opportunity to work for free? Has it been good for your career, or merely a time drain? How have you made the decision to do work or to not do work? Are you glad you did the free work, or are you glad you turned it down? Have you asked others to do free work for you? Did they accept? Why weren't you willing to pay? What benefit did you get and what benefit did they get?

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Photo by AntwerpenR, Flickr cc 2.0

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