Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Employers or employees: who owns social media accounts?

Courts and businesses are grappling over the issue of who owns a social media account—the company or the employee responsible for maintaining it. The most high-profile case is the ongoing dispute between PhoneDog and Noah Kravitz over the company’s Twitter account (which Kravitz took with him when he resigned).

Last week, Eagle v. Moran [pdf] tossed its hat into the ring on this issue.

During 2008, while Dr. Linda Eagle was president of Edcomm, she established an account on Linkedin, which she used to promote Edcomm’s services, foster her reputation as a businesswoman, reconnect with family, friends, and colleagues, and build social and professional relationships. A co-worker had access to Eagle’s password and assisted her in maintaining her account. Edcomm, through its CEO, recommended that all employees participate in Linkedin and indicated that employees should list Edcomm as their current employer. Edcomm generally followed the policy that when an employee left the company, the company would “own” the Linkedin account and could “mine” the information and incoming traffic, so long as it did not steal the ex-employee's identity.

On June 20, 2011, Edcomm terminated Eagle, accessed her LinkedIn account and changed her password, and changed the account to display the name and photograph of its new CEO.

The court dismissed Eagle’s federal statutory claims, but refused to dismiss her state law misappropriation claims. Trial is set to begin today.

What are the takeaways for businesses deciding how to deal with the ownership of corporate social media accounts? I have some thoughts, but Eric Meyer, at the Employer Handbook Blog, beat me to it:

    1. Start with a written social-media-specific agreement. This document should clearly set out the rights and expectations of the company and its employee. Also, include social-media language in your other broader-based non-disclosure agreements.
    2. The company should create/register the account. This will indicate that the company has some ownership stake in the account. Also, be sure to consider the terms of use that any social-media company has in place for end users.
    3. Change the password when employees leave. Make sure that you know the account password at all times and immediately change it when employees leave your company. That will reduce the risk that your former employee will act first and lock you out.

More succinctly, I can sum up the one key takeaway for employers and the one key takeaway for employees:

  • For employers: If you have employees creating or using a work-related social media account, before you grant the employee access, put in writing who owns the account. Otherwise, you will end up litigating the issue after the fact.
  • For employees: For gods sake, exercise some common sense and never give your employer the passwords to your personal social media or other online accounts. This whole mess could have been avoided if Eagle simply kept to herself what is supposed to be private.