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

Ellen Mesmmer | July 9, 2013
Legal battles erupting over LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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 e-mail 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-knownexpertise.

There are plenty of these sorts of "who owns it" fights breaking out in the U.S. and 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 ofownership of content and accounts set up by current employees who may, ofcourse, 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 socialnetworking, did not have a detailed, signed policy to inform employees thattheir LinkedIn accounts were the property of the employer. This would havebuttressed Edcomm's arguments, though the court might still have possiblyweighed 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 summarizing the facts of the case.

 

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