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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.