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As businesses see the employees who started their social media accounts and strategies start to move on to other work, the question of who owns social media is on the rise.

In the last couple of years, this has led to a number of high profile lawsuits in the states.

Two prime examples of recent lawsuits over social media accounts include:

  1. EdComm

    In 2008, EdComm's founder, Dr. Linda Eagle, set up a LinkedIn account that discussed banking and business use for banking under her company name. In 2010, she sold the company and they terminated her. That day the company changed the password to her LinkedIn account, LinkedIn granted it back to Dr. Eagle which led to a dispute over the ownership of the group. The new company owners considered it a customer list and the password as proprietary information. They are now suing each other and have lawsuits in Pennsylvania and New York pending.

  2. PhoneDog

    Noah Kravitz joined PhoneDog in 2006 and started a twitter account as @PhoneDog_noah. In 2010, he left and claims he was told he could have that account and its 17,000 followers. In 2011, Kravitz joined a competitor and had a dispute with PhoneDog on some back pay owed to him. PhoneDog then sued Kravitz as it considered the twitter followers as a customer list and they wanted them back. As Kravitz held the account for eight months after leaving PhoneDog, the company claimed they were due $340,000 in damages, which works out as about $2 per user per month for the 8 months he held it. In the end, Noah Kravitz won a six figure settlement.

It's not a clear cut issue but in order to avoid these issues and be proactive, lawyer Pedrum Tabibi has a number of steps businesses can follow:

  • Social media policy

    Make sure you address the issue of ownership. Who can create the account, what it will be named, who has access to account passwords, and who can edit/ remove content. Do you want to put in procedures to relinquish the account upon termination? Tabibi thinks you should definitely put that provision in your social media policy to clear up any potential issues.

  • Employment contracts

    Add an element to the contract that states the employee will not compete with the business within a certain amount of time after termination. Even if they walk off with the account then they will be in breach if they bring the Twitter followers to a competitor.

It's very important to tailor these provisions to your companies values and don't make them too broad. If you do, you may be breaching the law by and it will make the provision defunct. In-house lawyers don't always know a lot of the caviets to social media and you need to explain how social media components will be used within your business. This will help you tailor your policies to your business activity and not the personal element.

Unless you work with an expert, you can't write a policy that will properly protect the company. So until social media practice becomes more engrained, it may be easiest to get outside council.

Heather Taylor

Published 5 June, 2012 by Heather Taylor

Heather Taylor is the Editorial Director for Econsultancy US. You can follow her on Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest.

236 more posts from this author

Comments (9)

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Alex

Interesting, I'd never thought of this as being a potential problem but I guess its a fine line to draw. Definitely something to consider in the future (and no doubt we'll see more lawsuits!)

over 4 years ago

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Alasdair MacGregor

This is an interesting point, on which I had a great debate recently with a friend at a different agency doing social media. It either makes *sense* that your handle is yours no matter what, or it belongs to the company dependent on where you stand. You have to work out the details beforehand. We created a video with advice for this here http://youtu.be/iNapngxBhes

over 4 years ago

Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

As part of our offering we run social media courses and this is one thing that I keep on about. It's so important to be clear as to who owns the company social media accounts.

Thanks for posting this - adds a bit more ammunition to my argument!

over 4 years ago

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Salvatore McDonagh

Interesting, but you don't mention the fact that really it is the social media provider (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc) who actually "own" the account. They can (and do) change the rules, and have both created and crushed businesses overnight by a change in policy.

Any business that relies on a twitter of Facebook account as a "customer mailing list" is deluding themselves about their ownership of the list. It belongs to neither the company or the employee - it belongs to Twitter or Facebook. Customers who rely on these as a source of information about your business can be lost at the flick of a switch without your consent or even prior notice.

The only sensible course of action is to use these as communication channels to entice people onto your own social media platform - be that an email list, blog RSS feed (a few people still subscribe to these), or a "membership" site or forum.

over 4 years ago

Heather Taylor

Heather Taylor, Editorial Director at Econsultancy

Salvatore - very true. Neither companies or employees "own" the content or fans/followers, etc on social platforms. I've heard of companies moving everything to Facebook, for instance, instead of email or their own website. Then look what happened when timeline was introduced. Those businesses relying on code and apps (which were probably built at great expense) had to go back to the drawing board.

One of the members of the audience yesterday said her company was trying to impose a rule that ALL content created at work would be owned by the company - including things you posted on your personal accounts. As you have to log in to Facebook through your personal account in order to access the admin of a page, this would mean her Facebook account would be, by defacto, owed by her company. That seems extreme but businesses are scared of losing their social commodity.

over 4 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

It's so important to really think about who is going to the be the voice of your social media presence. If that person leaves will your social networks lose something as well? It's critical that businesses establish guidelines for social media.

over 4 years ago

Jeremy Spiller

Jeremy Spiller, MD at Econsultancy Guest Access TRAININGSmall Business Multi-user

Now that Social Media is centre (center) stage, this is and will be an increasing problem. The need for internal policies, sound strategies and tactics which include the determination of responsibility of management of business profiles on social media and handover when people leave needs clarification and definition. Also there is the related topic of cyber-squatting which will also become a much greater problem in social media than it is now.

I completely agree with the last paragraph and my advice to anyone would be get some advice, speak with lawyers if necessary and if it means changing contracts of employment and look at this from all aspects to ensure you're covered properly.

over 4 years ago

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Deborah Collier - Echo E-Business

I'm glad this point has been raised. It's not only employees you need to consider but also your suppliers. We supply social media marketing services, and we ensure that ownership is clear in our contracts. We strongly feel that any client brand or company pages and groups are owned by the client. If groups, brand and company pages ownership are not covered in your suppliers agreement, I urge you to renegotiate with them.

over 4 years ago

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Doug Topken, eBsuiness

The question some may also grapple with is...when does the social media content actually become part of the product the company is selling? When it does become that, or a significant piece of it, then Twitter or other social becomes a distribution channel and is subject to channel management issues, which could include channel conflict and questions over monetization models. I witnessed eCommerce being born and have been a part of nurturing it to its present state of maturity; that's been a 17 year ride for me, a long time maybe, but the maturation curve for social as a distribution channel will be much much shorter.

over 4 years ago

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