Who Owns Your Company’s Social Media Accounts & Followers?

Social networking services“How many friends do you have?”

Have you asked this question in a job interview yet?  If not, you may find yourself doing so sometime soon.

As marketing and recruiting for our companies is accomplished more and more through social media, the ability of our employees to reach others through their own social media networks becomes more important.

This raises a very important question:  When an employee leaves the company, can they take their social networking “friends” and followers with them?

There have been a couple high profile cases in the news lately that may start laying legal groundwork in this arena.

Tug-of-war over Twitter followers:

Noah Kravitz worked for Phonedog, where he had a Twitter account, @PhoneDog_Noah.  When Kravitz left the company, he changed his Twitter account name, effectively taking the account’s 17,000 followers with him.

The company sued Kravitz, claiming they had the rights to the followers, not Kravitz.  They estimated that each of the Twitter followers were worth $2.50 per month to them.  Eight months after Kravitz left Phonedog, the company filed a lawsuit against him for $340,000, which they estimated was the total value of having 17,000 followers, worth $2.50 each, for eight months.

This case is still working its way through the courts, but is being closely watched by many.

LinkedIn custody battle:

LinkedIn also brings up interesting dilemmas.  Linda Eagle, an executive who worked for Edcomm, had a LinkedIn account that an Edcomm employee created and maintained for her.  When she was terminated from the company, her password was changed and she was locked out of her account.

She sued claiming an invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity.  The company countersued with a claim that their policy required employees to create and maintain LinkedIn accounts, of which the contents were to be returned to the company.  Eventually Eagle retrieved her account, but the court upheld Edcomm’s claim that Eagle misappropriated their idea.

What you can do to protect ownership of your company’s social media followers:

We can only begin to imagine the areas of employment law that need to be ironed out regarding who has the rights to friends and followers in the workplace.

Many corporate recruiters are developing vast networks on their LinkedIn accounts for the purpose of filling their company’s positions.  These connections are made on their employer’s time and equipment, utilizing their position with the company.

When they leave for a new job, do they have a right to take those connections with them, or is that a trade secret belonging to their employer?  The same question can be applied to the sales team and other staff that depend on strong networks to perform their jobs.

The solutions are not simple.  While we wait for litigation to determine best practices, internal policies can help to protect your business.

  • Incorporate social media into your company’s definition of trade secrets in your confidentiality agreements and your non-compete agreements.
  • If you hire an employee because he or she is particularly adept with social media and/or blogging, agree together in advance, in writing, what will remain the property of the individual and the property of the corporation.
  • Whenever it’s possible, create social media accounts in the name of the business and have more than one administrator on the account, so ownership is spread between multiple employees.
  • As part of retrieving company property during an employee’s termination process, retrieve access to all company-owned social media accounts.

As the old saying goes, “make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.”  With the price of silver and gold what it is now, we’re probably going to see more and more legal battles over who has the rights to social media friends in the future.

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