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Who owns your social media account and community when you resign?

There have been a number of court cases that have taken place recently concerning the ownership of social media accounts and associated contacts and content. This is a very contentious issue and is not always easily resolved. The question of ownership can be quite tricky especially if the owner of a social media account grew their community and developed content at the expense of their employer.

I was contacted by a young lady recently who faces a dilemma. She was employed by a recruitment company and during her tenure, created a LinkedIn account and connected with thousands of individuals, creating a substantial database in the process.

She left the company, taking her LinkedIn account with her. Unbeknownst to her, the company in question had access to her LinkedIn user id and password, and without her permission, accessed her LinkedIn account. Her personal details were removed and her password was changed. The lady in question is, as you would quite expect, extremely upset. She planned to use the LinkedIn profile and contacts she had created to continue doing was she is good at, recruitment; however she has been robbed of much-needed information and her livelihood.

The question which goes begging is, “Who did the contact information created during her employment at the recruitment belong to in the first place?” Was her employer within their rights to claim the information she had created during her employment, or does this information belong to her?

Here is an excerpt from an article on Forbes on the issue, titled “Who Owns Your LinkedIn Contacts?”:

The idea that an employer might someday claim that my contacts belonged to them was more than a little unsettling. Now, a court in England has issued an order that requires an employee who resigned to start his own consulting business to turn over all of his LinkedIn contacts to his former employer – along with receipts and contracts proving that none of them became clients of his new firm.

That clarifies one legal issue in the UK at least: the contacts on your LinkedIn profile are more likely to belong to your employer than they are to you if those contacts are customers, employees, or vendors you did business with in your job.

This clearly indicates that the ownership of LinkedIn contacts do not necessarily favour the employee when they leave their employer and it is something they must seriously consider if they are planning to move.

If you are in any way involved in social marketing, you may want to pay particular attention to this excerpt from the same article:

Marketing employees who manage corporate social media sites and accounts during their employment may find that their social media accounts are especially vulnerable according to employment attorney Donna Ballman. Ms. Ballman wrote recently that employers may have a claim regardless of what documents you signed.

“If you were hired to be the company blogger, to create a Twitter account and tweet for the company, to develop the corporate media presence, the work you did while you were employed and those social media accounts you got for the company likely belong to the employer. An exception is probably LinkedIn. They don’t allow profiles for companies – only individuals. Your LinkedIn profile is probably yours, even if the company told you to create it while on the job. Just don’t run afoul of your nonsolicitation or noncompete agreement,” she says.

In another case, the court ruled in the employee’s favour when a former employer sued the employer when they went out on their own:

Just a year ago, in another case involving a head hunter who went out on her own only to be sued by her former employer (who happened to be her uncle) for approaching candidates and clients who were her LinkedIn contacts — and also part of his database. The Eastern District Court of New York state took the opposite stance from the UK court, ruling in Sasqua Group, Inc. v. Courtney that the availability of information in social media invalidated the company’s argument that the information was a trade secret. (It also proves that if you hire a relative, make sure that you get them to sign the standard noncompete agreements.)

If you have a significant online presence, have thousands of followers and connections and deemed a social media influencer, and happen to be planning on moving to a new employer, it is advisable to have a very close look at the legal issues that may crop up. It is best to understand your rights before you sign the resignation form.

Depending on the circumstances the situation could go either way if it goes to court. Judgement may vary depending on local laws too.

Author | David Graham

David Graham
David Graham's passion is business-to-business digital marketing with a specific focus on value networking and inbound marketing. He consults on business-to-business digital marketing strategy and execution, with an emphasis on building sales pipelines and generating new prospects More


  1. Walter Pike

    February 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Interesting – I wonder how easy that would to enforce if you came into the business with a linked in account to start off with.

  2. Richard Simmonds

    February 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Great article David.

    It comes down to relationship and the question must be asked who has developed the relationship with the person who forms part of that database.

    So in essence if the company would like access to that data and they intend to build a new relationship with the client well then so be it, but removing access and not allowing the person who built the relationships access to that data is short sighted, if not criminal.

    So going forward I believe in the stance Walter is taking and that is that you enter a company with contacts and a network which you are influential in, the company will contract you to influence your network so that you may both have agreeable gain.

  3. David Greenway

    February 1, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Great article with some food for thought.

    I think there is a definite need for the Social media ownership issues to be laid out in the
    employee’s contract before hand to avoid this. Both parties will obviously need to benefit from the employment and whether the followers/connections on a social media account form part of the employee’s remuneration or the company’s assets is a very interesting debate.

    I like the way that many news outlets are handling it, as far as I know their journos get the account with the outlet’s name attached to it (For example @davegreenway_BBC) when the journo leaves the account remains with the news outlet and is renamed to the new person (@DavidGraham_BBC) in that position to continue offering the content that those people subscribed to and thus continuing the growth for the company. This is understood as the norm from the outset and is therefore not a contentious issue.

  4. Liron Segev

    February 1, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    if you are employed and part of your job that you are getting paid to do is to build up a Social Network, then surely this belongs to the company. Before this thing called Social came about Sales people built up client lists – these are the property of the business.

    The question comes into play if when you are employed because you have a Social network which is what the company wants to use and then you build up that network whilst employed. So your own assets are now mixed with the company…this is where the “who owns what” comes into legal-play.

    As a base rule that I advise companies to never set up Social Networking under an individual’s name but rather have the account as the brand/ company. This way you are building up a company asset that is clear who has ownership. It also allows for a smoother hand over to a new person when your Social manager leaves/ gets promoted/ transfers

  5. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Good point Walter. May the best lawyer win ;)

  6. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Very interesting point Liron however there is also a strong argument around the pros and cons of personal vs corporate brands. A large percentage of the global social business specialists tell companies that their employees SHOULD build strong personal brands, and witha strong personal brand come connections and influence. Where do you draw the line? Can you at a point in time tell an employee not to grow their personal brand anymore??

  7. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Very good idea David but how do you get around the personal connection that was created between the owner of the account and the commiunity they were interacting with ;) The issue with contracts is that many “social media celebs” were employed before social networking took off. Thanks for the feedback. Will we see you at the Deloitte Tech Trends 2013 event in March?

  8. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Very valid points Richard which I adddressed in my responses to Liron and Dave. Thank you very much for the feedback. Much appreciated!

  9. Chris Fox

    February 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    The problem is simply that employers have not kept up with changes in behaviour and technology. Employment contracts, terms and conditions of employment and company policies should be clear on these issues and agreed wit employees before they leave the company, not resolved in the courts after the fact. If companies fail to do so, then they should accept the loss.

  10. Fred Felton

    February 1, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Great Post David. A very controversial issue this one. Reminds me of the story of an American Journalist who moved from one paper to another. There was much debate about whether he could keep his followers. He tweeted out ‘my feed is my own.’ Very controversial I mean if you join some big company or brand should you keep all those followers if you leave. Did they really just follow you because you work for a Fortune 500 company or did they follow you because of your hard work that you put into managing and building that account.

  11. Dot Field

    February 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    When using your own name on social media platforms, whilst in the employ of a corporate, make sure that you have a rider on your page that the comments and opinions shared are in your private capacity. Create a “business” profile or clearly state when communicating a business message.

  12. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    With social media still being relatively new, I believe many companies have not thought about the potential impact. Thank you for the feedback Chris.

  13. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    This is not as simple as it sounds Dot. Many persons share articles and thought ware, prepared by subject matter specialists other than themselves.

  14. David Graham

    February 1, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    All food for thought. Thanks you Fred!

  15. Matt Black

    February 1, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    Dear Davids.

    How would you manage this scenario: A friend of mine established a personal Twitter account of @JohnSmith. His company then wanted all employees to include the brand in their Twitter handle, so he is now @JohSmiith_BigMagazineTitle. He started the account on his name, linked to his private email address and has the loathsome “Tweets are my own” in his bio.

    Now he is leaving the company at the end of Febuary, they want him to turn over his Twitter account to them, along with all 5000-odd followers. There is nothing in his contract to favour him or his employer as the ‘owner’ of the account.

    So, who owns the account? The individual or the company who asked him to Tweet on their time using their name?

  16. Matt Black

    February 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Reading the comments this looks like the “Should bloggers get paid?” question. It comes down to what you agree on in the initial contract. Some people are happy to have Twitter “because they were told to” while others love and nurture their followers and contacts.

    If you already have a job and the social media policy changes, then I’m not so sure. Better save up for a really good lawyer.

  17. Jodene Shaer

    February 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I am currently dealing with this very issue with a client. They want their employees to use their personal accounts to share information about the company. I am saying that if that is their request then they are asking employees to grow & engage for them, but they as employees are still doing the work & making the connections. It weighs highly on ethics on both parties but, in my perception, the contacts & relationships were made by the employee and should go with the employee.

    Maybe employers should take company accounts more seriously and grow their personal brand and relationships with clients, then there would be less threat by coming and going staff who take their connections with them.

  18. Darren Smith

    February 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    I have a simple social media policy. I follow people, not brands, or companies. I have *lists* of brands, so that I can (on occasion) see how they’re engaging on social platforms, just as I have *lists* of books, magazines, newspapers, so that when I’m inclined to, I can see what the state of play is on a major story, or sporting event, or area of interest.

    But when it comes to engaging with people, personally or professionally, I do this with people and with their personal accounts. I would expect these personal accounts to transcend business relationships.

    Where the waters get muddied is the hybrid accounts (already highlighted in other posts) … @702JohnRobbie @702David (O’Sullivan) … who clearly tweet from 702 accounts. However, @AkiAnastasiou, @BruceBusiness (Whitfield), @RediTlhabi, @jcwLIFE (Jenny Crwys Williams), @StephenGrootes all tweet from their personal accounts … and I cannot imagine 702 trying to hi-jack these carefully nurtured social graphs.

    There is no easy answer, and I suspect the answers will be as different as businesses are unique. A good starting point though, is to know of the potential conflict, and to manage it UP FRONT!

  19. David Mannl

    February 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Clear distinction between company and personal accounts is
    needed going forward and I think people will adopt it as a natural precaution going
    However, a truly social company – one that consists of non-hierarchically
    connected co-workers – will be exposed to no risk by one employee leaving and
    will not need to argue over connections/leads.

  20. Sandile

    February 2, 2013 at 5:46 am

    Interesting article Graham. I agree with Leron’s comment. Ownership is informed by your primary role. If it is to maintain relationships on behalf of the Organisation or Division and its possible for your replacement to personify the same profile, then clearly the Organisation should reposes that account and its contents on your departure. However if you grow contacts in the line of your business and can easily delink it from the Organisation then the account belongs to the employee. Even if he or she grew the contact because of the position you held, that growth can never be divorced from the personal brand.

  21. pauljacobson

    February 2, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    There are some really good suggestions in the comments and I was inspired to write a post about this (http://webtechlaw.com/posts/let-my-followers-go.html) which makes some of these same suggestions. One I didn’t deal with specifically is @twitter-32808688:disqus’s suggestion which companies like CNN started adopting a while back after one or two anchors left, taking their followers with them.

    Drawing clear distinctions as you go is certainly essential but I can see the challenge being more about the discussions going into an employment relationship and bringing your communities with you. Those discussions and resulting contracts should address how you will relate to your communities once you are employed and once you leave.

  22. Craig M. Jamieson

    February 2, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Great article, David! In Idaho, we would call this “a hot potato” :) I’ve been on both sides of the “non-compete” fence but not as it pertains to social media accounts. Certainly, there are attorneys who now specialize in addressing these specific issues.

    This is a two-edged sword as smart companies recognize that their best brand ambassadors may indeed be their own employees and encouraging them to share the good word builds not only brand awareness but also good will. And, companies want and need that.

    Then there is the matter of … is that employee being specifically paid to build this social network and is this function also a part of their written job responsibilities? A clear definition of both, along with the expectations of both parties, must be in place prior to hiring and not at the time of termination. For existing staff, this would require an amendment to any agreement(s) that might be in place.

    The bottom line is this. I have no frickin’ answer to this question! However, this has never stopped me from sharing my opinion :)

    Thanks again for the opportunity to contribute!

  23. Savannah Brentnall

    February 3, 2013 at 1:58 am

    His mistake was converting his existing twitter account to the new brand ID. He should have started a new account that included the brand name. and let the company pay him to build it up.

  24. Dorian Benkoil

    February 3, 2013 at 2:16 am

    Thanks for this. It will inform a discussion I’m moderating at Social Media Weekend on 2/17 about ROI of social media at Columbia U. It’s an intriguing quandary: some employers will hire someone expressly *because* of their reach in social media (# of followers, fans, etc.). If that person is forced to use a company account, many of those followers may be lost. But when they build upon the followers they had while with the company, who owns that IP? Do they keep their original followers? Does the company own the ones added during the employed period? Should there be a generic company account — which is not a best practice for many social media interactions — or the often better practice of a personally attributed account which allows for more “voice”, and therefore community interaction? One of my panelists, former head of CNN who now heads a news startup, said he allows employees to choose whether to keep their account or use a new one, and (if I understood correctly on our pre-event prep call) that the intellectual property is shared — company and employee share whatever benefits they can glean. That seems to be an attractive, additive approach, rather than zero-sum, but clients of mine have sometimes chosen a more narrow approach that better matches their culture and concerns. We’re far from resolved law or business practices, and part of the difficulty is balancing the power and interests of the company and the inherently power flattening nature of social channels.

  25. Adrian Lee

    February 3, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    You know the articles are great when they broach topics that are ‘ahead of the time’. This is the case definitely in South Africa, I think. Most companies have no clue about the value of the contacts or relationships built during a staff member’s employment. Few would go as far as to commandeer the contacts built by any individual (community manager or not).

    See this more as a topic of how companies manage client relationships. If you’re a FMCG brand that deals with a mass audience, chances are there’s continuity built into staff resigning, etc. The impact won’t be as huge. If you’re a business that deals with one-on-one (like in the recruitment example above) clients/business prospects, you’d certainly try to retain those ‘contacts’ built up.

    Nice mashup for social media technology, labor laws and pure business ethics. I sit on the side of the individual. It’s more interesting to ask existing labor laws, quo vadis?

  26. Adam Franklin

    February 3, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Hi David, that’s a real and very common situation. From my chats with social media law friends, my basic understanding is that if the social media account includes the company name (eg. @JohnatDELL) then the employer owns it but if it’s just the employees name (eg. @JohnSmith) then the employee owns it.

    I personally encourage our Bluewire team to build their own personal networks and personal brands. A bigger, stronger network benefits the company just as much as the individual and I believe if you look after your team, even if they move on, then you simply have company advocates out there in the market place.

    People can get precious about LinkedIn contacts, but just like with ‘real relationships’ an employer can’t make you un-know someone, nor than they claim they own the relationship. I say it belongs to the employee.

  27. David Graham

    February 5, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for the feedback Craig :)

  28. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Thank you for your comments Adam. I agree with all your points. You cannot take ownership of another person’s relationships. People friend people. If the person leaves, the relationships leave with them.

  29. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    I agree that this is more pertinent in the B2B space rather than B2C. Thanks for the feedback Adrian!

  30. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Let me know how the discussion goes Dorian. I reckon that if a person has the capability of building a strong online brand, they can quite easily leave their social accounts with the employer, move on to the next, and do it again very easily. Once you are known, you are known. Thank you very much for the valuable feedback.

  31. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    Thank you Paul. I have read your articles on Web Tech Law and shared, as they are very relevant and insightful. Are you a legal specialist by any chance ;)

  32. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    If the greater percentage of the company is social, then one person leaving will not make a huge difference. I aalso believe that a person that is given the go ahead to build a strong personal brand should be trusted to continue supporting the comapny in question even if they do move to another employer. Thanks for your comment David

  33. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks Darren. Now that companies understand the impact, they can do this with new employees, however there are those early adopters outh ther you developed their online presence before organisations understood the impact the social web would have. Thanks for your valuable input, as always!

  34. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    People develop relationships with people. You need the corporate account for branding purposes but you cannot develop a relationship (and be social) with a nameless logo. Maybe there shouldn’t be corporate accounts at all on social networks becuase it defeats the purpose. what do you think? See you for coffee soon? :)

  35. David Graham

    February 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks Matt :)

  36. pauljacobson

    February 7, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    You know David, I dabble …

    Paul Jacobson

  37. Linked Media Group, Inc.

    February 10, 2013 at 3:58 am

    Great Content David as usual. I agree with others; if the account is branded personally even if an individual is representing a brand or business then he/she owns the account. But, if business brand, then ownership is clear and well defined, regardless of Platform and Type.

    There may be content ownership issues on some of these social platforms that may need to be removed from a personal account as well. As an example, if an individual is on Pinterest and has created a Board that incorporates White Papers or Research (Case Studies) then the company may be able to force the personal account holder of record to remove the “branded content” that is rightfully owned by the corporation.

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