Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Who owns social media accounts? (part 2)

Last Monday, I asked the following question: “What happens to an employee’s social media account when the employee leaves a company?” The very next day, a California federal court began to sketch the outline of an answer.

PhoneDog v. Kravitz (N.D. Calif. 11/8/11) [pdf] concerns the ownership of a corporate Twitter account. Noah Kravitz worked for PhoneDog as a product reviewer and video blogger. In that role, PhoneDog provided him use of a Twitter account—@PhoneDog_Noah—to disseminate information and promote PhoneDog’s services on its behalf. When Kravitz resigned his employment, PhoneDog requested that he relinquish use of the Twitter Account. Instead, Kravitz changed the account’s name to @noahkravitz, continuing to use it. PhoneDog filed suit, claiming, among other things, that by refusing to relinquish control of the Twitter account, Kravitz stole its trade secrets and other proprietary and confidential information.

In seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, Kravitz argued that PhoneDog cannot establish any damages because it cannot establish ownership over the Twitter account. According to Kravitz: “To date, the industry precedent has been that absent an agreement prohibiting any employee from doing so, after an employee leaves an employer, they are free to change their Twitter handle.” (emphasis added). The court disagreed, and is permitting the claims alleging misappropriation of trade secrets and conversion of property to proceed to discovery.

Despite the employer’s (at least temporary) victory, why take a risk that an employee can challenge ownership rights to a social media account? If you have employees using corporate-branded or other official social media accounts, require them to sign an agreement as a condition of their employment that says the following:

  1. The company, and not the employee, owns the social media account.
  2. All social media accounts, including login information and passwords, must be relinquished at the end of employment.

Anything else places these issues in the uncertain hands of a judge or a jury.