Companies often assume they own all rights in the social media accounts used in their branding strategies. However, disputes regarding account ownership can arise in many circumstances. For example, what if an employee created her own Facebook or Twitter account before she was hired and then began using that account on behalf of the company? What if an employee is hired for his persona (sports broadcaster or well-known blogger) and attracts an audience with his personality rather than company products?
These questions are currently before the district court in the Northern District of California. In PhoneDog v. Kravitz, Kravitz was hired by PhoneDog to blog about competitive products. During his employment, Kravitz used a Twitter account with the handle @PhoneDog_Noah to post about products. However, he also tweeted information unrelated to PhoneDog and his employment. When Kravitz left PhoneDog, he changed his Twitter handle to @noahkravitz and took his 17,000 followers with him. PhoneDog sued Kravitz, claiming that it owned the rights to the followers and is seeking $340,000 in damages. Many companies are closely watching this case to see how the ownership issue will ultimately be resolved.
To avoid this type of situation, businesses should strategically create agreements and policies to clearly determine ownership rights. If a company wants clear ownership of a Twitter account, for example, it should create the account and then provide the employee the right to use it under a clear social media policy that states the company is the owner of the account. If a company is hiring an individual to personally speak on behalf of the company or endorse its products, it should negotiate with the individual as to who will ultimately own the account. A carefully thought out social media strategy that addresses these ownership issues will avoid uncertainty and litigation down the road.