Can A Company Keep An Employee's LinkedIn Account After They're No Longer Employed?

from the how-does-that-make-sense dept

Venkat Balasubramani has the story of a bizarre fight between a company, Sawabeh Information Services, and the founders of Edcomm, a company that Sawabeh bought in 2010. A few months later, the founders of Edcomm were fired, and the lawsuits commenced. There are a variety of issues here, and Venkat's post goes through most of them in detail, but I wanted to focus on just one: the fight over who gets to control Dr. Linda Eagle's LinkedIn account. Eagle was one of the founders of Edcomm and the key figure in this fight. Sawabeh claims that Eagle "misappropriated" her own LinkedIn account and the contacts associated with it, by continuing to use it after being fired.

While I can kind of understand some of the legal fights over who gets to control Twitter accounts, the entire point of a LinkedIn account is to represent an individual and their job history. How would it possibly make sense for a company to control an ex-employee's LinkedIn account?

The company seems to think that the LinkedIn account was more like a rolodex. Because (for reasons that are beyond me), Eagle had let others in the company access and manage her account, as soon as she was fired, people at the company accessed her account and then changed her "name" and profile picture to someone else at the company. That would be pretty shocking for her connections, who might not know who the guy was at all. They also tried to do this with the account of one of the other fired founders, but they didn't have his password. Apparently the company asked LinkedIn to hand over the password, and LinkedIn, properly, told the company to get lost.

Either way, the court digs into the "misappropriation" question with the LinkedIn account and refuses to dismiss it out of hand (at this stage of the case), which seems too bad. However, there's an unclear issue of who "developed" the contacts in the account:
The Counterclaim Complaint expressly alleges that, with respect to the LinkedIn account connections and content, "Edcomm personnel, not Dr. Eagle, developed and maintained all connections and much of the content on the LinkedIn Account, actions that were taken solely at Edcommís expense and exclusively for its own benefit." ... While Plaintiff argues that Edcomm fails to allege facts that would show that it made a substantial investment of time, effort, and money into creating the cell phone number or LinkedIn account, Edcomm counters that its employees developed the accounts and maintained the connections, which are the route through which Edcomm contacts instructors and specific personnel within its clients. As these conflicting allegations create an issue of fact requiring further discovery, the Court must deny the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings as to the misappropriation counterclaim.
Of course, I wonder if they're arguing about the wrong thing here. If the company developed the contacts, perhaps it has a right to ask for a copy of the contacts, but the account itself seems like it should belong to Eagle. Part of the problem here is the idea that contacts are some scarce resource. Both parties can have them, and the simplest thing would be, if there is a legitimate claim that the company developed those relationships, to require that their contact info be provided to the company -- but leave the account in the hands of Eagle.

Either way, the case should be a warning for any company that wants to control the LinkedIn accounts of its employees.

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  1. icon
    TonyP (profile), 30 Dec 2011 @ 12:38pm

    Re: Re:

    The key point you're missing is not simply allowing access, it's allowing modifications. In your property example, that's like telling someone that hey, you can go ahead and paint my house for me and then complaining when they file a lien on the property because you didn't pay them.

    Or, perhaps a little closer to the linked in example, many states have laws that will allow people to claim ownership over property (land, in this example) they have maintained for a certain period of time with the knowledge and (tacit?) approval of the property owner. I forget what the legal term is, but it does exist.

    Common-law marriages, if still on the books in any states, are perhaps another example.

    I believe there have also been court cases where a person sues a former housemate who allowed them to live in the house without a rental agreement due to a "relationship" getting a certain percentage of ownership awarded to them because they were able to show spending time and money maintaining/improving the property.

    I guess my point is be careful of anything that may be interpreted as sharing or giving up ownership rights.

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