Twitter Turfwars and LinkedIn Lawsuits: Are Your Social Media Friends just Followers or Trade Secrets?

by | Jan 19, 2012 | Blog

  • Amy Letke

    Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success. Contact us for more insights - 502-753-0970 or

Wednesday was a pretty dark day. Social media and Internet junkies everywhere were going through withdrawal as many sites “blacked out” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act.

According to Wikipedia, whose content was unavailable yesterday (unless you knew super secret tricks to get around the blocked site), 162 million people saw their message yesterday and 8 million followed their instructions to contact politicians.

This internet protest which included top sites like Wikipedia, Google, Firefox, Reddit, Flickr, WIRED, WordPress, The Oatmeal, Facebook, Greenpeace, Boing Boing, and Minecraft led to eight U.S. lawmakers withdrawing their support for the proposed bills.

And just today, President Obama said he would not support SOPA or Protect IP. As a result, SOPA has been delayed for now (the House will revisit the issue next month, but they now know the White House will veto any bill that’s not more narrowly focused), while Protect IP will still go before the Senate on January 24.

So what? Whether you are for or against SOPA and PIPA or even if you have no idea what they are or what the websites I just listed are all about, there is something to take away from this.

The Internet is a powerful place. This is not a news flash, but rather just something that business owners should be reminded of daily. One day without some of their favorite websites and people went crazy and actually contacted their representatives! Now, officials are rethinking the bills and amendments are most likely going to be made to clear up issues.

What if people reacted that way if your site went down? Wouldn’t that be a good feeling? Anyways, I digress.

So maybe you don’t have quite the impact of some of these top sites, but your online presence is an important part of your business.

Which brings us to our topic of conversation today: The Ongoing Battle Over Social Media & The Workplace.

Now, we’ve talk about creating your social media policy before. Check out that blog here. We’ve also talked about whether or not you should be friends with your boss and co-workers online. You can check out that blog here.

But today, we want to go over the legal side of things.

We ask: Twitter Turfwars and LinkedIn Lawsuits: Are Your Social Media Friends just Followers or Trade Secrets?

Recently, lawsuits over social media are on the rise as employers and former employees wrangle over who owns their followers.

 Turf Wars

Here the first story: In September 2011, PhoneDog Media filed a claim against a former editor, Noah Kravitz, asserting that he changed his Twitter name unlawfully from @PhoneDog_Noah to @noahkravitz when he stopped working for the company. The mobile device review website claimed that Kravitz owed it $340,000—$2.50 for each of the 17,000 followers he had when he left the company per month for eight months.

The company claims that Kravitz’s followers are “trade secrets” and constitute a “confidential customer list.”

PhoneDog media is not too happy that Kravitz now tweets about articles not from their website and even tweets about competitors’ content to “their” followers.

But PhoneDog did not have a clear policy that stated who had the rights to social media content. So considering this and the industry precedent of maintaining followers even after leaving a news organization (set by members of CNN and BBC), it is very doubtful that PhoneDog will win its case.

So how can you avoid this mess?

First, establish the function of your Twitter site. If the purpose of someone’s Twitter site is personal or even quasi-business, it is unreasonable for a company to claim ownership of it. But if the site is primarily used for business purposes, the employer has a stronger claim.

Lesson learned: Outline who owns your social media content in your social media policy! (more about this later)

LinkedIn Lawsuits

Story 2: When Linda Eagle was terminated from her position at Edcomm, a co-worker who assisted her with her LinkedIn account changed Eagle’s password, her name and picture and subsequently locked Eagle out of her own account.

Eagle sued the company for violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Lanham Act and invasion of privacy by misappropriation of identity, among other claims.

Edcomm counterclaimed that it implemented a policy requiring its employees to create and maintain LinkedIn accounts. For all departing employees, Edcomm requested and retrieved Edcomm-related LinkedIn connections and content from the departing employees’ account. Edcomm maintained that Eagle wrongfully misappropriated its connections on the LinkedIn account.

A district court rejected Edcomm’s claim that Eagle unlawfully misappropriated a trade secret. The court said LinkedIn connections do not qualify as trade secrets because they are generally known in the business community and are easily derived from pubic information.

Now, most employers allow departing employees to take LinkedIn connections with them, which seems like the easier route than the one Edcomm is going down. Lawsuits can be messy and take forever to come to an end.

So how you can avoid this social media battle of who owns what?

  • Revisit your social media policy. Most social media policies are pretty general. They state that employees should not use social media sites during work hours and employees should not post derogatory comments about work on their pages. You need to make your intentions clear about who owns what in social media. If you own the rights to all your Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections, say so!
  • Update your job descriptions. If one of your job descriptions states that the person will be using social media as part of their job, make it clear who owns what content. Integrity HR suggests that you keep company accounts separate from personal accounts to avoid all confusion. You can do this by setting up Twitter and LinkedIn accounts under the company name instead of a person’s name (For example: Integrity HR’s Twitter name is IntegrtyHR, not Amy Letke). This means that the employee cannot use the company account to promote themselves or to tweet about personal issues (that’s what personal Twitter accounts are for!) Make sure this is clear to the person fulfilling the position.
  • Check out your noncompetition or nonsolicitation agreements (if you have them). Those agreements usually are broad enough to prohibit solicitations on LinkedIn and other social media sites after a termination. You can add a line that explains how this influences social media. But make sure you don’t follow in the footsteps of Edcomm and lock an employee out of their account.

Now, we understand that social media is still a pretty new concept to most companies. And this idea of “owning” social media friends is even newer. Integrity HR wants to make sure you are up to date on all the latest issues.

So as this unfolds, we’ll be sure to let you know what your company should do to avoid pricey lawsuits with disgruntled employees.

For now, our advice is to be proactive when it comes to updating your policies. If you need help updating your social media policy, we can help. Just contact us and we’ll help you design your 2012 social media policy and update other policies that are outdated to protect your company.

Now, of course, this blog is pointless if all of our favorite websites black out again! (Wikipedia says they have something else up their sleeve to protest the bills).

Deep breaths everyone. It will be OKAY!

Anyways, now that all the legal stuff is out of the way, please excuse me while I post a notice about this blog on our company’s Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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