Who Owns Social Media Accounts?

So, who’s seen the story about Noah Kravitz being sued over his Twitter account?

PhoneDog LLC filed a lawsuit in July against Noah Kravitz, a writer who worked for the Mount Pleasant, S.C., company from 2006 until last year. Attorneys for the website, which reviews mobile devices like phones and tablets, said Kravitz owes them $340,000.

The company said when Kravitz resigned, he changed his Twitter name from PhoneDog_Noah to noahkravitz, and kept his 17,000 followers. The company said the followers should be treated like a customer list, and therefore PhoneDog’s property.

PhoneDog said Kravitz should pay $2.50 per follower per month for eight months, or a total of $340,000.

So Noah opens an account, builds a following, leaves the company, changes the account name to be clear he’s no longer with the company, then is sued over the value of his account.
 There’s also a story about Dr. Linda Eagle’s fight over her LinkedIn account..

Dr. Linda Eagle…teamed up with Clifford Brody and founded Edcomm…In October 2010, Sawabeh Information Services entered into an agreement…to purchase Edcomm. Sawabeh proposed to retain the three as executives, but abruptly terminated them in June 2011. This prompted a flurry of litigation.

The Lawsuits: Eagle sued…alleging that defendants improperly accessed and continued to use Eagle’s LinkedIn account. Defendants turned around and asserted counterclaims, alleging that Eagle misappropriated a telephone number that had been assigned to Edcomm and improperly caused AT&T to transfer this number to Eagle personally. Defendants also asserted that Eagle misappropriated a laptop, as well as the LinkedIn “connections” associated with Eagle’s LinkedIn account (which defendants allege was maintained by Edcomm for the Edcomm’s benefit).

Got that?  She and her partners sell the business, get canned, then sue because their former employer took over her LinkedIn account. Her personal account.
I’ve heard of (but not personally seen) companies that not only ask employees to remove them as the current employer upon termination, but have the activity on their exit checklist and will watch an employee make the change.  Never made much sense to me, as it is easy to change it back or falsify that record.
Both that example and the Twitter discussion, to me, end in the same place.  Too many companies (read: leaders) don’t understand the implications or use of social media tools yet.  Want to make sure you own those intellecual rights?  Open the account, point it to a company email and ISSUE the password.  Yes, you’ll have to share it with the user, but you giving it to them brings some implicit ownership to the party.  But your best bet is to have separation between creation and use of the account.  Then there isn’t a lot of debate over where the ownership ends and the utility begins.
Think of physical tools.  If an employee goes out and acquires a screwdriver, laptop or car for use in company business, you’d expect some haggling over ownership down the road, right?  That’s why the business buys the equipment.  Clarity.  Just because these accounts are free doesn’t make them less valuable to your business.  And the ownership rules aren’t much different.  Take the time to be clear up front on the ownership of the accounts, starting with how they are established. Twitter, Facebook and Google+ company pages should be established and maintained by the company, and the content belongs to them.
But keep your hands off personal LinkedIn accounts.  They are personal for a reason.

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