Who Owns Social Contacts and Followers?
Make sure it's understood who owns social media contacts for your employees.
I have followers and contacts on Twitter and LinkedIn. I own my company so I own the followers and contacts. That means I could sell my list--assuming I can accurately determine its value.
If I worked for another organization as an employee and I used social networks as part of my job, does the organization own my follower and contact lists? What are the conditions under which an organization can claim contact ownership? This is a hard question to answer since there is almost no up-to-date legal precedent to use as a guide.
Social Media: Who Owns What?
There is no clear legal foundation for determining who owns what and what value can be assigned to a list of followers. At this time, it is not clear if anyone can own the followers, organization, or employee.
Here are some cases that point out the ownership issues when it comes to social media accounts:
* PhoneDog settled a lawsuit out of court with Noah Kravitz in December 2012. The suit was over what PhoneDog considered as the misappropriation of their Twitter followers by Kravitz. Kravitz had 17,000 followers developed during his four years with PhoneDog. When he left PhoneDog, he changed the name on the Twitter account from @PhoneDog_Kravtiz to @noahkravitz and kept the followers. PhoneDog said that the followers were theirs, not Kravitz's.
* At the BBC, their chief political correspondent changed her Twitter name from @BBCLaurak to @ITVLaura. She had 60,000 followers when she made the change. It is unknown how many followers she kept or lost. There is no definitive conclusion as to who owns this follower list.
What Is the Value of a Social Media Account?
In the Kravitz cases, PhoneDog sought damages of $340,000 for the alleged misuse of the followers for an eight-month period. PhoneDog valued the followers at $2.50 per month per follower. Since the case was settled out of court, no actual follower value was made public.
I don't know how PhoneDog came up with this figure. I can relate the $2.50 value to mailing lists which can be priced from $1 to $3 per name, usually for one mailing or a limited number of mailings. The price depends on the list quality.
Creating a Policy
A problem for PhoneDog was that it had no clear policy in place about the use of social media. This made the question of ownership vague. So an organization could possibly avoid this sort of conflict by including the rules for social networking use in the employment agreement and/or personnel manual.
There is another reason to create and enforce a policy. Recently, the SEC issued a warning to Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings for sending a tweet saying that Netflix had streamed over 1 billion hours of content in June of 2012. The SEC allows sending out this form of information as long as it is distributed to the public at large, not to a limited group like the followers of Hastings. This could have been treated as a breach of the SEC's fair disclosure rules, though the SEC has since suggested that such disclosures over Twitter and Facebook may be acceptable.
For now, the overall rules regarding social media are unclear. Rules could include the use of company information that has been posted and how the organization is referred to in social media posts. But an organization can be overzealous and draft stringent rules that may not be enforceable.
Enterprises should ensure that employees know that the organization's information is not theirs to distribute or comment on. And of course any employment rules should be reviewed by the organization's counsel.