I was talking to a friend today that got a notice in the mail about joining a class action lawsuit against AOL. Back in the 90’s my friend had become a “Community Leader” for AOL. In this role it was his job to monitor a discussion boards and offer technical support to other users. Now some of these volunteers are saying they should be paid just like employees.
As I’m listening to him, I suddenly feel myself inside a railway tunnel with a train headed my way. I realized that this little lawsuit could really change Web2.0.
Volunteers Hop On Board
In looking for a way to monitor it’s discussion groups and chat boards, AOL came up with an innovative approach. They asked the most active users of AOL boards and chats to volunteer to monitor those boards and chats. These were people that had already invested time as participants of the board and they were now being offered a role to monitor them. For many, I’m sure the idea of keeping their on-line communities “clean” was their reward enough but for performing this role, they got free service.
The argument that’s being made is that these individuals were doing the same work that an AOL employee could have been doing and they were being treated as employees; take training classes, document their effort, track their time, and work a specific number of hours. As such, they feel that they should have been compensated under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The case has been floating around the courts since 1999 and in February a New York court decided to allow the case to proceed and ordered AOL to provide a list of community leaders so they could decide whether to participate in the class action lawsuit.
See where I get lost with this case is that these were volunteers and that by definition means unpaid. Further, they did get rewarded for their efforts with free service. Further still, they could have quit at any time. No one forced them to do this. Now they want their share of what they voluntarily gave up, their time. So I’m not exactly sure how this gets to court. Then again, I’m not an attorney. But I don’t have to be to fear the precedent this case can create.
Next Stop, Web2.0
When I think Web2.0, I think collaboration. The reason for the major version change is the web that was was about publishing and the web to be is about collaboration. It is that people and organizations can work together to build new idea, share information, or simply waste time.
Very simply collaboration can be both commercial and community, read paid and un-paid. A developer get’s involved in an open source project knowing the code they will share will be used by others. If they want to get paid for being a developer then get a job at Alfresco. But they simply want to share some code, then they can participate in the Alfresco community. What this case says, is the rules of the game can change once the balls in play.
If you voluntarily give up your knowledge, do you still have rights to them. For example, you are visiting a software support site reading the discussion groups. You find a problem someone’s having and you know the fix. You respond to that post. Should you get paid? I ask, what was your expectations?
Discussion groups on software support sites are powered by collaboration. But in many cases these sites are hosted and provided by the vendor. These sites are a service the vendor provides for a fee to its customers. More than likely without these discussions, and active participation in them, the vendor would need to hire more support technicians. But is this cost savings for the vendor why you participated in the first place?
Dodging the Train
This situation reminded of a client visit back in 2000 where I was to meet with a CIO of a Global 100 company. Just as the meeting started the CIO was called out by the company’s legal team as they had gotten a cease and desist order from British Telecom to stop using hyper-linking on their web site. (No it wasn’t visiting Prodigy.) BT claimed that they owned the patent to the hyperlinks and were looking for a royalties. Fortunately in 2002 BT lost the case in court. Had BT won the case, the Internet would be a very different place.
We can only watch this case as it progresses and hope that cooler minds will prevail. If we are to loose the volunteer nature of Web2.0, what will become of community efforts like Wikipedia and SourceForge? Then again, maybe it can all be resolved by adding a simple line to every submission “The information provided in this (blog, post, wiki, or message) is provided voluntarily and without any expectation of monetary gain.”