Social-networking content ownership can end in company vs. employee tussles

Using social-networking sites to reach out to the public is more important than ever for business, but one pitfall in all this is that employees and their companies can end up battling over who owns the social-site's content or accounts. These battles even end up in the courtroom, and sometimes employees win, at least in part.

That's what happened in the recently decided case of Eagle v. Morgan   in which Dr. Linda Eagle, the former CEO of the banking education company Edcomm, was terminated but then fought to take back control of the LinkedIn account under her name she had used extensively for business purposes. It had been based on her business email address, and Edcomm, which tussled with her to control that LinkedIn account, wanted to "mine" it for the traffic. It ended up being a legal fight in a Pennsylvania court which justthis March ruled the LinkedIn account had been misappropriated from Dr. Eagle, reasoning that her name had "commercial value" because of her publically-known expertise.

There are plenty of these sorts of "who owns it" fights breaking out across the world as companies encourage employees to dive into social-networking to do business, but neglect to prepare for many kinds of ownership questions, say observers.

"Most companies do not have any proactive programs around this," says Alan Brill, senior managing director at the cybersecurity unit of Kroll Advisory Solutions. The first place to start in all this, he says, is to have a detailed social networking policy on every facet of ownership of content and accounts set up by current employees who may, of course, become former employees.

Cases like Eagle v. Morgan are openly fought in court, but much more happens behind the scenes as companies and employees (and former employees) battle over social networking ownership, with Kroll sometimes pulled in to come up with forensics data.

According to court documents, Edcomm, though it had some policies related to social networking, did not have a detailed, signed policy to inform employees that their LinkedIn accounts were the property of the employer. This would have buttressed Edcomm's arguments, though the court might still have possibly weighed against the company on other grounds.

When Dr. Eagle and Edcomm tussled over control of the LinkedIn account back in mid-2011, LinkedIn itself seized control over the account, eventually returning full control of it to Dr. Eagle a few months later.

During the time Edcomm had control of Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn account back in mid-2011, anyone typing in "Linda Eagle" would have been directed to a web page showing the name and affiliation of the newly appointed interim CEO, Sandi Morgan, according to the Pennsylvania court's document summarising the facts of the case.

Edcomm, co-founded by Dr. Eagle, had been acquired by another firm, Sawabeh Information Services Company. Prior to her involuntary termination, Dr. Eagle had shared her password to the LinkedIn account with some Edcomm employees, according to court documents, for purposes said to include handling invitations and updating. After her departure, Edcomm employees accessed her account and changed its password,effectively locking her out.

In March of this year, the court ended up backing Dr. Eagle's claim of "misappropriation" of the LinkedIn account. But the court did not agree with Dr. Eagle's claim that the defendant Edcomm had committed identity theft, nor that the account was hijacked, nor that she has satisfactorily established facts about monetary damages. But the court agreed she had standing for punitive damages from Edcomm.

It's cases like this that have law firms riveted and trying to figure out where courts are liable to side on these issues. This isn't the only kind of battle going on between employees and companies over social-networking sites, saysBrill.

Companies are encouraging employees to set up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and are finding the content goes far outside the bounds of what they would have hoped.

"They may be releasing stuff the company doesn't want released," says Brill. This has become a global issue for corporations that aren't keeping track of what happens in far-flung locales in which they operate. Sometimes individuals simply take it upon themselves to handle business-related social-networking without their employers being aware of what's going on, setting sites up under their personal name. The problems arise when employers try to take control of these sites. There are so many complicating legal issues, such as the myriad prohibitions in US state law, about getting social media passwords from employees, Brill points out.

And there are questions as to whether an individual with a Twitter account used for business has some kind of ownership over all those Twitter followers, if there was no agreement about this to begin with. There was a long-running court battle on this issue called PhoneDog LLC v. Kravitz , but it ultimately offered no clear guidance becauseit was settled out of court earlier this year.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: emessmer@nww.com

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