Who Owns Your Company’s Twitter Account?

Many employers use social media for a variety of purposes. I am currently in Las Vegas to speak at the Advanced Employment Issues Symposium, where there will be several sessions on how best utilize social media for recruiting and hiring, employee engagement, and as a corporate-communications tool. I’m looking forward to hear about the ways that employers can take advantage of sites like Twitter and LinkedIn for all of these purposes.

But what happens after you put these tools to work? In other words, if you hire a social-media specialist to use Twitter to promote your business or even if you authorize an employee to use Twitter as part of his or her job (i.e., to recruit employees), what happens when that employee leaves for a new employer? Do you own the Twitter account?

I’d bet that many of us would guess that you would–that you (the employer) authorized the employee to start the account on the organization’s behalf and that you would expect the employee to return the account, so to speak, at the end of his employment.

And that’s all fine and well, provided that the employee agrees. But what if he or she does not agree? What if the employee decides that he wants to take the account with him to his next job. I mean, gosh, he put so much work into building up all of those followers, right? At least that’s what the employee will surely say!

According to FindLaw, that seems to be the issue in the case of one employer, PhoneDog, who has filed suit against its former employee, Noah Kravitz. During his employment with PhoneDog, Kravitz tweeted under the handle @PhoneDog_Noah. When he quit, he changed the account name to @noahkravitz and has refused the company’s requests for him to relinquish his use of the account. In its suit, PhoneDog alleges that Kravitz’s use of the account consitutes misappropriation of trade secrets, interference with economic advantage, and conversion (i.e., theft).

Whether the claims will succeed is almost a side issue–there are much more immediate considerations at play. For example, even if the company were to win at trial, any benefit of the account would, by that point, likely be lost. All of the followers that PhoneDog did have would either have stopped following the account or no longer be interested in the PhoneDog perspective–by that point, they’d be more interested in the Noah Kravitz version. And, in the meantime, PhoneDog would have already had to start all over trying to build a new following.

For any company considering implementing social media as a communications, PR, or HR tool, this case should serve as an excellent reminder of the importance of planning for the worst. Consider now who owns what in the social-media realm and then put it in writing and communicate it with any employee who is granted access to the social-media accounts. Letting the ownership of social-media accounts wait until a crisis arises is never a good idea.

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