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Who Owns Employee Social Media Accounts? 'The Correct Answer Is: Shut Up'

from the winner dept

Back in October, we had a post looking into the legal issues of who actually owns a Twitter account, especially when a famous employee of a large corporation uses the Twitter account as a part of his or her job. As we noted, the law isn't clear, and for the most part, companies seem to assume that the employees own the accounts, so no one's really made a big stink about an employee leaving and taking a ton of "followers" with them. But, it's really only a matter of time.

Still, an anonymous reader sent over this recent take on the same issue by lawyer Jay Shepherd that gets right to the heart of the matter, brilliantly, in saying that if you're even asking the question as an employer, you're probably in trouble:
Who owns an employee's LinkedIn contacts?

Or Facebook friends? Or Twitter tweeps? If an employee is using these social-media sites in his or her professional capacity, does the employer have the right to take the contacts away once the employee leaves?

The correct answer is: shut up.

Seriously. If you're an employer or a manager and you're seriously asking these questions, you just don't get it when it comes to social media. You're missing the whole point of these social-networking sites.
His overall argument is pretty much exactly how we feel: employers need to let go of some things, and an employee's ability to build up relationships that they could potentially take with them when they leave is one thing to let go. The benefit of allowing this is much greater in the long run for a company. If you're going to try to claim ownership over employees' social media accounts, your employees are going to recognize that, and they won't care or invest as much effort into those accounts, meaning the company ends up getting very little benefit, even if they technically end up "owning" the account at the end of the day.

One of the key lessons that we try to point out over and over again on this site is that you don't have to control everything. Quite frequently, by letting go of control, you stand to benefit much, much more. And this is yet one more example where that's true.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:20am

    'The Correct Answer Is: Shut Up'

    That's the correct answer for a lot of questions. Questions that are answered in great length and repetition here.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    John Doe, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:26am

    Effectively the employee does

    Whether the employer likes it or not, the employee effectively owns the accounts. The list of contacts/followers/etc is digital so the employee can copy them and take them to a new account if he desires.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Don, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:32am

    It will go to court one day...

    I agree with the answer. Doesn't mean it won't ever make it to court. And then the outcome of that trial will have a big impact.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    Soundy (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:39am

    Interesting piece, especially in light of this recent little "skirmish" in our Provincial politics: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2011/03/07/bc-nicholas-simons-passwords-agreeme nt.html

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:41am

    But Its MINE MINE MINE

    The control freaks will never go away. I worked at a company that decided that all those frequent flyer miles that employees were getting belonged to them. Once they decided to try to take them, they all disappeared. Who wanted to go to all that extra effort to put in the member numbers for somebody else to take the free trips.

    The important thing that a company should take away from this is that it is important to make sure that their customers deal with many employees. If there is no one "shining light" that always takes care of them then there is no reason to "go" with that person. That won't work in the case of say Steve Jobs, but with the typical sales rep or repair technician, make sure that the customer has several points of contact, a call-in number, technical support, sales, sales support, and so on. Make sure the whole company takes care of your customers, not just one person (even if that person is you, after all, you will want to sell the company and retire one day).

     

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  6.  
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    thublihnk (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 6:42am

    The real question is-who gets my Farmville when I quit!? Do some real reporting, Mike! I need answers, I don't trust Best Buy to feed my cows after I'm gone.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    harbingerofdoom (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:00am

    Re:

    your farmville gets taken over and used as a hippie commune when you abandon it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:07am

    Re: 'The Correct Answer Is: Shut Up'

    Actually, in techdirt terms it's "cover your ears and yell LA LA LA LA LA LA" so that you can't hear any other advice".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    Nate, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:07am

    Wouldn't this question really depend on how the account is branded?

    If it's a personal account then I don't see how a company could reasonably expect to own it. It would be like asking for a former employee to give up the contact phone numbers in their personal cell phone or hand over the information saved in their personal GMail account.

    Heck, I have a huge stack of business cards in my desk and no one has ever asked me to hand those over.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    Qritiqal (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:11am

    Re: Re: 'The Correct Answer Is: Shut Up'

    Shut up.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:12am

    Re: Re: Re: 'The Correct Answer Is: Shut Up'

    You forgot to yell "LA LA LA LA LA"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
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    John Doe, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:17am

    Re:

    This would definitely put it in the employers hands. The local news channel has Twitter and Facebook accounts for the newscasters. But the ID of the accounts has the call letters of the station in them. My guess is the station even set them up and gave the credentials to the newscasters.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:30am

    The correct answer is SHUT UP to anyone who doesn't agree social network suck. Mike seems to think they're the best thing since the wheel... when really, if you ask random people, they will mostly all say it sucks. Try it with your entourage, you'll see. Everyone hates facebook and twitter, yet everyone uses them. Why? Because people are sheep. Not because it's cool or useful (or completely useless) but because others do it.

    Go on the highway, drive 10-20 mph over the speed limit, and count how many people start following you. People are sheep. People can't think for themselves, like lots of readers here. If Mike says it, let's do everything in our power to discredit anyone who doesn't agree. Very few commenters actually weigh both sides to make an informed dicision. Instead, they flame and bitch at anyone not agreeing with Mike.

    It's quite a nice community you built up here Mike. You should try to start your own religion, you could be rich(er)!

    That being said, if you use "your" account in someone else's business, "your" account should be owned by them since they endorsed everything you did. And you just run away with the followers to go to a competitor or something? ... makes no sense at all. If it's your personal account, not linked to work, and you use it during work... then you should get to keep it, though I'd fire your ass for not working.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    Marcel de Jong (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:43am

    Re:

    It all depends on the use you find in social networking. For me it is an outlet to vent my frustration and happiness, and to showcase other people's wittiness. For others it's a news source. Yet another uses it to keep in touch with friends. And for curmudgeons, they all suck. On the topic of "sheep", your opinion isn't very new either, who's opinion are you following here? The Anti-Mike's? (just kidding) Of course you'll mostly find people here who tend to agree with the viewpoints displayed on Techdirt. For a large part because they make sense (but that's my own opinion), and for another large part, birds of a feather flock together. Doesn't make anyone mindless sheep in any way/shape or form. If you present your differing opinion in a clear way, with evidence, you'll find that you'll get a discussion, and even people agreeing with you. If you just post "Nope, your wrong, losers"(sic), of course you'll get a flame back, as it doesn't add to the discussion. It's all in the way it's presented. And on the topic of who owns the account, goes back to who created the account. If it was you, then you own it. If it was your boss, he or she owns it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Marcel de Jong (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:44am

    Re:

    ARGH, we need an edit button... sorry for the wall of text above. Here is a more legible reply:


    It all depends on the use you find in social networking. For me it is an outlet to vent my frustration and happiness, and to showcase other people's wittiness.
    For others it's a news source.
    Yet another uses it to keep in touch with friends.
    And for curmudgeons, they all suck.

    On the topic of "sheep", your opinion isn't very new either, who's opinion are you following here? The Anti-Mike's? (just kidding)
    Of course you'll mostly find people here who tend to agree with the viewpoints displayed on Techdirt. For a large part because they make sense (but that's my own opinion), and for another large part, birds of a feather flock together. Doesn't make anyone mindless sheep in any way/shape or form.
    If you present your differing opinion in a clear way, with evidence, you'll find that you'll get a discussion, and even people agreeing with you.
    If you just post "Nope, your wrong, losers"(sic), of course you'll get a flame back, as it doesn't add to the discussion. It's all in the way it's presented.

    And on the topic of who owns the account, goes back to who created the account. If it was you, then you own it. If it was your boss, he or she owns it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Mel-rockportshoeswomen, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:48am

    It depends..

    It really depends on the kind of company and what information they are gathering and for who - for example, a sales employee will probably run Linked In accounts at the behest of their employer, who will naturally want to keep connections when the employee leaves. Therefore, there should be systems set up or ensure that he employee does this kind of data gathering on an approved 'company' account.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:49am

    This came up in our monthly meeting. An employee started a message group about one of our products. Needless to say a flame-war broke out and the company flipped, stripped the guy of admin rights and took over. Several posts were deleted and is being monitored by PR folks turned Social Media professionals. All during the brief we're told to respect the brand, we have an obligation to protect the company's reputation and the like. I guess no one told them they can do far more damage trying to spin every negative word about whatever product/service a company can provide. Besides, I don't think anyone would have known about the group if we weren't told about it. Google didn't even know about it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
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    Adam G (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 7:51am

    I think one thing that although short term, is easily overlooked.

    Lets say Company A has 20 employees from various departments, all with their own individual twitter/blog/facebook/etc... pages. The company links to them, as they are to post relevant stuff about things they are working on, and other misc stuff, they are free to do what they want, with only minimum guidance.
    They all build followers(of different types)

    Sure company A will be mad with employee Bob leaves, taking his twitter account with 50,000 followers.


    But maybe, Company B will be THAT much happier to have Employee Bob? Because now Bobs new company can take advantage of it.


    Perhaps in the future, we will have as part of a resume, how many youtube or twitter followers we have in our professional lives?

    It wouldn't be a requirement for every job, but it could definitely be considered an added perk.


    It will make a few companies a bit disgruntled in the beginning. But I think overall in the long run, it'll be beneficial for everyone. Even if some companies don't ever see it that way.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    pixelpusher220 (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 8:14am

    Re: Effectively the employee does

    you can take the accounts with you but you can't make them follow your 'new' account...

    I think the basic concept is that if the account is the show name or a derivative of the show name, the show keeps it. If it's a personal account, it stays with the employee.

    Take MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, he's @Lawrence or @TheLastWord. Which do you think will go with him and which stay with the show if he were to leave?

    Besides if a former employee were to use an account for 'nefarious' purposes, there are all sorts of laws that can be used against them. If you left a job the last thing you would want to do is continue to make use of an account that referenced your *previous* job.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 8:15am

    Re:

    So what you're saying is that its no longer "who you know" but "who knows you"?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    Gwiz (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 8:40am

    Re:

    It's quite a nice community you built up here Mike. You should try to start your own religion, you could be rich(er)!

    Speaking of religion, since today is Fat Tuesday I've been thinking about what to give up for Lent. I thought about giving up commenting on TechDirt. Then I remembered that I had given up religion for Lent a few years ago, so......

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    The eejit (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 8:46am

    Re: Re:

    Like the ultimate perversion of cultural capital.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    Grae (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 9:38am

    How is this different from meatspace contacts?

    The thing I don't get is how Twitter/Facebook professional contacts are different from offline professional contacts. Professionals leave employers and take their professional contacts with them to their new employers (or their own startups) all the time. Why is social networking in a professional context different?

    The argument of branded social network accounts really boils down to that if companies really care about social networking, they should be making sure they are the creator/owners of their social networking accounts from day one. Otherwise, they'll have to play "rock'em sock'em" lawyers with their ex-employee and find out from a judge who really owns the branded account.

    Though honestly professionals who invest any time in social networking should be doing so under their own identity in the first place and making sure that their employment terms and conditions allow them to do so before they are hired.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    NullOp, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 9:42am

    Who?

    There is no question here. The person who created the account, and signed the Terms&Conditions page, owns the account, no question. If a large suit resulted would the company be quick to claim the account? Why, Hell No! So, res ipsa loquitur...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    magecat (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 10:21am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: 'The Correct Answer Is: Shut Up'

    And you forgot to sign in to give yourself a little credibility.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
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    Dan J., Mar 8th, 2011 @ 10:46am

    Exactly!

    If the account is a company name or includes a reference to the company name or product, then the actual account should almost certainly stay with the company. However, the tweeter should certainly be able to tell his followers "I'm leaving company A. If you want to follow me, my new account will be blah."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Ryan Diederich, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 11:08am

    Foolish

    Firstly, the idea that social networking is stupid is an opinion, not a fact. Just because you dont like the scary technology doesnt make it a bad product.

    And seeing as in how facebook and twitter have hundreds of millions of users, I would say its time for you to 'shut up'.

    I agree that it would depend on the nature of the account. Of course, when the employee that operates a "fox news" twitter account leaves, he obviously cant take his account with him.


    This differs greatly from regular contacts, as they can be taken easily without giving up the account.

    I think it gets a tad ambiguous when you begin talking about a representative, like a salesman or something. If he is using his personal account to gather contacts for sales, then I dont really know what should happen. Its my opinion that he should keep the account, because he created it and he is the sole reason for its activity.


    If the company doesnt tell you what and how to post on it, then its yours not the company's

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    Nastybutler77 (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 11:23am

    The correct answer is: shut up.

    Seriously. If you're an employer or a manager and you're seriously asking these questions, you just don't get it when it comes to social media. You're missing the whole point of these social-networking sites.


    Mike, I think you missed Mr. Shepherd's point when he said this. It's not just that a company shouldn't try and control their employees social networking accounts, it's that they can't control the accounts after the employee leaves.

    Once the employee that has thousands or millions of followers leaves, so do most of the followers if some company rep assumes the account. That's what I think Mr. Shepherd means by "missing the whole point."

    Basically, if you think you could keep a former employee's contacts or followers, than you're an idiot who doesn't have a clue.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
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    Anonymous American, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 12:25pm

    Re: Re:

    I wish I could grow pot in Farmville and sell it in Mafia Wars.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
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    Mikael (profile), Mar 8th, 2011 @ 3:03pm

    Re:

    Adam G, that would all really depend on what kind of employment agreement was signed between the employee and his/her company. At my previous job I was a field service technician that handled clients personally. Each technician had our own clients and one of the agreements I had to sign when I started stated that if I left the company I was not allowed to solicit those clients if I was working in a similar job somewhere else.

    If I had been using twitter/facebook/etc at the time for work purposes, I wouldn't have to "give up" those followers, but I wouldn't be able to perform any kind of work for those individuals if it was related to what I did for that company while employed there. I guess I would've been able to do the work for free, but why would anyone want to do that lol. Hell I could've done the work and been paid for it, but I would've run the risk of getting sued by my former employer.

    If anything else, I would just notify the followers that I would be leaving the company, setup another account, and tell them to follow me there if they still wanted to.....then delete the one associated with the company to make sure no one else could capitalize on all the effort I had put into it to that point :D

     

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  31.  
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    Teknosapien, Mar 8th, 2011 @ 9:00pm

    Not seeing this side of it for once

    This seems much like the question, " if an employee starts a web space" from the early years. More times than not the company won. That being said, I would have to think that if a company is paying you to run their social media campaign then it belongs to them. If you happen to be John Q. Anyone and happen to state you work for company Public Inc then it would be For this company then it would belong to John no matter how large the following. The smart money would be on the company that hired this person as a consultant once they left

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
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    Jay (profile), Mar 9th, 2011 @ 12:34am

    Re: Not seeing this side of it for once

    And doesn't this effectively hurt the company when that following up and leaves when John Q goes to company C?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
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    BPuhl, Mar 9th, 2011 @ 1:54am

    Who owns the email address?

    For all of you "user centric" "social network" fans out there - are you going to complain then, when the company takes the email address that the account was used to create joe@company.com, and uses it to reset the password and "steal" the account?

    From what I can tell: And employee used a work asset to do work business. Since when does that mean that they get to take that work asset with them when they leave?

    Now, if you're using your personal email address to create the personal Twitter account, then it's yours. But a work email address doesn't belong to the employee, it belongs to the employer, issued for use on it's behalf, and reclaimed when the employment ends.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
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    btr1701 (profile), Mar 10th, 2011 @ 11:33am

    Accounts

    > no one's really made a big stink about an
    > employee leaving and taking a ton of "followers"
    > with them.

    Even if the law says the employer owns the account, there's no practical real-world way to enforce that.

    Presumably people who follow Employee X are doing it because they want to read stuff from Employee X and if the company keeps the account, all those followers will just migrate over to whatever new account Employee X sets up in place of the old one.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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