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:
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.
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.
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.