A few e-mailers have mentioned a connection between my earlier blogger-payola post and the new push by Philadelphia to license bloggers. They’re not actually the same thing, though. The danger in the payola story will be that the FEC starts regulating blogs for content, whereas Philly is simply expanding its business-license law to a new form of business:
For the past three years, Marilyn Bess has operated MS Philly Organic, a small, low-traffic blog that features occasional posts about green living, out of her Manayunk home. Between her blog and infrequent contributions to ehow.com, over the last few years she says she’s made about $50. To Bess, her website is a hobby. To the city of Philadelphia, it’s a potential moneymaker, and the city wants its cut.
In May, the city sent Bess a letter demanding that she pay $300, the price of a business privilege license. …
It would be one thing if Bess’ website were, well, an actual business, or if the amount of money the city wanted didn’t outpace her earnings six-fold. Sure, the city has its rules; and yes, cash-strapped cities can’t very well ignore potential sources of income. But at the same time, there must be some room for discretion and common sense.
Should there be? If a city requires a business to get a municipal license in order to operate, should the city exercise discretion on who has to comply? A blogger that sells advertising and makes money on the transaction is operating a business, whether he or she calls it that or not, and regardless of how much income that business generates.
For instance, when I briefly became a notary public, the state of Minnesota required me to get a business license if I ever charged a client for cash. In fact, the state pestered me for longer than I held the notary-public license to file quarterly reports on my earnings from the business (of which I had exactly zero, since I only got the license in order to process some paperwork for my employer).
While it’s true that most blogs don’t make much of a profit, or even income, that’s also true of most start-up businesses that require licenses, too. Most start-up businesses fail, and most of those eat up a lot more capital than blogs do. Most larger cities will still require them to get business licenses, even when those businesses operate out of homes rather than storefronts.
Bloggers who want to avoid licensing requirements simply can choose not to monetize their blogging time, which makes it a hobby and not a business activity. It seems a little churlish for Philly to demand licenses from bloggers who do sell advertising, but then again, perhaps the issue is licensing in general rather than the new focus on bloggers. If a blogger selling a few ads requires the same kind of a license as a storefront business, then what’s the purpose of either, and what service does it do the community for a city to shake down people attempting to invest in their jurisdiction?