Who Owns Your Social Media Account? You Or Your Employer?

Here's the situation:  You establish a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. account while you are employed and use the account to tweet, post, blog, etc. about your employer.  Then your employer falls out of love with you and you are no longer employed.  Who owns your followers on Twitter or your Facebook or LinkedIn account?  That's a really good question and one that the courts are dealing with right now.

Rich Sanchez was an anchor on CNN and has a Twitter account with the handle: "richsanchezcnn".  Rich was rendered unemployed because of some ill advised statements he made.  So, does CNN own the account or was Rich popular with the Twitter followers because of his good looks and sex appeal or because he was on CNN?  Should he have to change his handle?  This was settled out of sight, so we don't know what happened there.

On another front, a company called PhoneDog LLC filed a suit against former employee Noah Kravitz.  Noah tweeted while an employee of PhoneDog under the name "PhoneDog_Noah" but then changed it to "noahkravitz" after the break up.  PhoneDog alleges that Noah's 17,000 followers are worth $2.50 per month for 8 months and are asking for a $340,000 judgment against our friend Noah.  PhoneDog has, for the moment, survived a motion for summary judgment with the judge finding enough question of fact about "trade secrets" in the account to let the case go on for a little longer.

Then there's the strange case of Dr. Linda Eagle, who was one of the original founders of Sawabeh Information Services.  As is the case sometimes, all the founders were fired and Sawabeh alleges that it owns Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn account and that she has somehow "misappropriated" her own  account.  As you know, most LinkedIn accounts (as was Dr. Eagle's) are in the employee's name alone and refers to the company in the employment history and in the connections established.

We have explored the issues of who owns clients of an LLC and whether a toxic ex-spouse might have some rights in a patent in a community property state, but this is an area of the law that is developing.

In most instances, this is probably not a huge issue but employers who want to have control over these accounts (and the wisdom of this should be evaluated thoroughly), should provide guidelines in the social media section of their employment rules.  If stated clearly, there seems to be no reason why the employer would not be entitled to control and ownership of such accounts if they fall into the parameters set out in such policy.  Otherwise, it's pretty gray.

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