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Twitter #whoownsthefollowers?

Twitter #whoownsthefollowers?

Published: 27.03.13 at 16:13

From rogue Tweeters to disputed ownership, the absence of a clear company policy in relation to social media accounts managed by employers can cause more damage than you might think...

Client lists that are built up using a company's good name and its resources have long been held by the courts to be company property. However, what happens to a company's Twitter followers when those in charge of the company's social media leave their jobs?

Although copyright in a work made by an employee during the course of employment is generally owned by the employer, unless otherwise negotiated, the realm of social media in respect of IP ownership is unchartered territory - as far as the law is concerned. The exposure afforded to a company by successful social media campaigns acts as a valuable resource, consequently a water-tight social media use and access policy is essential in order to reduce the risk of misuse and/or appropriation.

The Phonedog LLC v Noah Kravitz case is a stark example of how things can go wrong without adequate consideration of use and ownership of the company's social media outlets in employment contracts. When Noah Kravtiz, employee at the popular US mobile phone review website, left the company he took his 17,000 Twitter followers with him -and changed his username in the process. To make matters worse for Phonedog, Kravitz utilised this account at his new employer, a competitor of Phonedog's.

The company proceeded to make a claim for $340,000 in damages on the grounds that the Twitter followers Kravitz "appropriated" constituted a customer database, which the company's resources had been used to create. In the EU such databases are protected under the Database Directive discussed in an Own-it article here. The amount claimed can be broken down to $2.50 a follower per month over eight months, as calculated by Phonedog's attorneys. The value was cited to be in the number of site views which the Twitter account created and the resulting advertising revenues which follow on from this (usually based on site traffic).

As an out-of-court settlement was eventually reached, Kravitz maintained sole custody of the Twitter account, there is still no legal precedent upon which future decisions can rely and the question as to social media account ownership remains unresolved.

Reputational damage can also arise subsequent to rogue Tweets, as evidenced earlier this year by HMV. Entering into administration already meant the HMV brand was suffering, but the accompanying large-scale redundancies received unexpectedly detailed coverage as a result of a serious of rogue tweets. A distinct lack of foresight meant that the person in charge of the HMV Twitter account maintained access to the company account, in full knowledge of their impending redundancy. As a result they began notifying HMV's 61,500 followers of the firings. Live updates were described in a Tweet as a "mass execution of loyal employees who love the brand" another added: "Just overheard our Marketing Director (he's staying folks) ask "How do I shut down Twitter?""

The lesson to be drawn from this is to not wait until the end of the employment contract to consider the issues of company social media accounts - often it will be too late. By covering the ownership of social media accounts in employment contracts and the maintenance of employer access to accounts at the beginning of the employment relationship it is possible to prevent mis-use and appropriation and clarify acceptable conduct for employees.

This article was written by George Blacksell

Image copyright: eldh - some rights reserved

 

Please note that this article discusses the legal position in the UK at the time of publication. It provides general information only but is not to be regarded as legal advice. You must take advice from a specialist lawyer in relation to your specific circumstances. Further, you should seek additional legal advice when dealing with parties based in other parts of the world or works originating from other parts of the world as the legal position may vary.

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