Heads-up all you business people who have hired people to manage your social networking for you. There’s a new legal action that may set precedent for IP and social media and it’s something that should concern business owners, writers, interns, or anyone else making a living social networking for a company.
In essence, a website devoted to mobile products is suing a former employee for $340,000 because when he left the company, he took the Twitter account he’d created and used on their behalf – along with the 17,000 followers – with him. The employee of four years left the company on good terms. He claims that he created the account himself and Tweeted about things for the company as well as about personal things, which was why he got so many followers. When he left, he adjusted the handle so that it no longer had the company’s name in it and continued Tweeting. The individual claims that it’s his personal account that he had used to better the company. The company claims that it’s their account and that he had been managing it on their behalf. Because the industry standard value on a Twitter follower is $2.50, they came up with the $340,000 price tag on damages. (see: Experts: Twitter account case may blaze new trails in social media law)
There are warnings to be had here for both businesses and for the social-savvy individuals managing these accounts.
For businesses in particular, I have seen over and over again where they’ve asked an employee – usually a young one or an intern – to set up Twitter and Facebook accounts on the company’s behalf and then keep them up to date. Then the intern or employee moves on and either treats the account as a personal one, taking it with them and forcing the company to start over (which is what seems to have happened in the instance above), or more often, just leaves without turning over the username or password to the company in question so the accounts simply die.
Companies need to grow up and treat social networking as the advertising/marketing/customer service venture that it is and clearly define the role of the employee or contractor tasked with maintaining the venture as well as ownership of the accounts. Issue an email address such as firstname.lastname@example.org to create the accounts rather than relying on the employee’s personal email address. Keep the passwords in a document that a supervisor has access to. When the employee leaves or the contractor turns over, change the passwords.
For writers and others making a living as contractors in the social networking arena, you need to treat this as a business, especially if you’re essentially “renting” out a personal following you’ve built to help market a company. If you’re starting a venture for a company from scratch, it’s even more important to spell these things out in writing. This means contracts, clearly defined expectations, as well as IP and confidentially clauses.
The case promises to set precedents in the ownership of social media accounts, but honestly, kids, this media hasn’t been shiny and “new” for decades. Time to grow up and treat it as a bona fide business venture from both sides.