Unpaid interns are one of the forces that make the Internet go ‘round, but that may soon change. Just a few days after a ruling in a Fox Searchlight movie studios case, in which unpaid interns were used as menial gofers, three former unpaid interns have filed suit against media blog Gawker, alleging that they spent more than 15 hours a week working on Gawker blogs but weren’t paid anything.
The suits are based on a 1947 Supreme Court ruling stating that internship positions shouldn’t displace regular workers, and should be aimed at benefiting the intern in some way (providing valuable work experience in their field, for example). And the employer is not supposed to benefit from the interns’ work right away.
Now, a lot of the time bloggers start out unpaid. I know I did, for TeleRead. My first few posts were occasional contributions here and there, which I kicked in because I felt like it, and for the thrill of having my name associated with a blog that I already regularly followed and respected. I knew I wasn’t getting paid for it, but I didn’t care. I liked having my articles out there to be read by all TeleRead’s audience, and taking part in the discussions they caused. (That’s generally the idea behind the unpaid work bloggers do on sites like the Huffington Post, too—you get your work featured on a major blog and build an audience, they get content for free, win-win.)
Since those early days, first David Rothman and then Napco were able to kick in a little money for me to write more regularly. Not a fortune, but then I’m still doing this largely for love and exposure anyway. And if I didn’t want to, I’d stop. (As I have stopped for long periods here and there, and probably will again.) You would think those interns would have the same choice.
But as I mentioned last time the “unpaid blogger” thing came up, the work you do for free can actually be the most enticing, the most rewarding at the time. You sort of rationalize it to yourself: your time is valuable, you’re spending your time on this, therefore, this must be valuable or you would not be doing it. It can be easy to caught up in the moment while you’re doing it, and only afterward look back and think, “Crap, they should have paid me for that.” Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, as long as there are lawyers, this can be corrected.
Depending on how these suits go, a lot of interns and former interns might suddenly start looking in that rear-view mirror, and that could potentially get pricy for Silicon Valley—and, for that matter, Hollywood and maybe the New York publishing industry too.