Who owns your Twitter account?

When the BBC’s chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg left her job for a competitor last summer, she did what many media folks currently do when they take a new job: She simply changed her Twitter username from one including BBC to one that includes her new employer, ITV. In that switch, she kept more than 60,000 followers, according to a Poynter Institute report. The BBC has a social media policy, but it doesn’t address ownership.

Boise attorney Lisa McGrath specializes in law related to new media, technology, e-commerce, and the Internet. She says without written agreements, problems may come up and could even cost a company money if an employee leaves. She gives a very specific example: PhoneDog v. Kravitz.

McGrath says the company PhoneDog (a mobile phone site) gave former employee Noah Kravitz a Twitter account  during his employment, with the company’s name in the handle: @PhoneDog_Noah. His account had more than 17,000 followers. When Kravitz left the company, he simply changed his username and continued to post from the account.

According to a New York Times article, the company placed a specific value on his followers: $2.50 per follower for the eight months since he’d left the company. With that formula, PhoneDog is alleging $340,000 in damages.

“While this case has yet to be resolved, courts in other cases are upholding social media account ownership agreements between employers and employees as well as similar provisions in corporate social media policies,” McGrath said.

What’s ‘yours’ is not  always yours

Some media companies are creating new policies to address ownership issues as well as conduct. For example, Scripps, which owns newspapers and television stations, has policies for both personal and private accounts. But for that company’s employees, even personal accounts aren’t without obligations.

From Scripps’ personal account policy: “If your personal account contains material that could reflect badly on Scripps, its business operations or your colleagues, or is contrary to Scripps policies, you may be asked to remove your affiliation with Scripps from the personal account or be otherwise disciplined, including termination. The possibility of disciplinary action is not intended to limit your use of social media, but clarify the company’s position regarding egregious behavior.”

Here’s a portion of Scripps’ professional account policy, which is defined as an account ‘intended to promote and expand the company’s brand, products and activities’:

“The account and any ongoing activity are subject to approval, monitoring, editing and modification by Scripps. Scripps must be the administrator and owner of all professional accounts. Your professional account is the company’s property and the name and contents remain company property if you leave Scripps. Scripps reserves the right to edit, monitor, promote or cancel a professional account.” (Source: Jim Romenesko, The Poynter Institute, Published June 30, 2011)

Protecting your interests

Companies aren’t just taking former employees to court over social media; there are cases of employees claiming ownership of their professional accounts. McGrath points to Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group, Ltd. Maremont sued her former employer after the company posted from her professional Facebook account and blog while she was hospitalized. That case is still moving forward. It’s another example of policies needing clarification.

“It doesn’t matter what industry you are in or what type of online networking account it is, in order to avoid costly litigation and protect your company’s brand, it is critical to secure social media account ownership agreements with employees and include legal provisions regarding account ownership in your social media policy,” McGrath said.

For reporters or other employees of media companies, legal decisions are still being made that could impact what happens to your content if you should leave your company for any reason. To protect yourself, know what your companiy’s policy is on social media ownership and usage, and be sure to read your company’s policy carefully if any changes are made.

Jamie Grey is an investigative reporter at KTVB-TV in Boise. She is a current member of the Idaho Press Club board.