Ownership disputes between employers and employees over social media accounts (think Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) are becoming more frequent. This point is highlighted in a wrongful termination lawsuit between Tomi Lahren, a former “reporter” and her employer, TheBlaze. TheBlaze is owned by Glenn Beck. Ms. Lahren was terminated after she made political statements that ran counter to Mr. Beck and TheBlaze’s ideologies.
One claim in Lahren’s suit is that Beck and The Blaze refused to give her administrative control of her official Facebook page. According to Huffington Post, Lahren claims that not having access to update her official page is “causing irreparable harm” to Lahren’s career.
Who Owns the Account
Here are a few observations based on our experience representing individuals and companies in social media disputes:
- Confusion over account ownership and followers is not just an issue reserved for “celebrities” and public figures. The problem can arise between employees and employees in any industry. Any disruption can be devastating to your online brand.
- Social account disputes are often complicated because media platforms offer multiple types of accounts. Consider, for example, Facebook offers individual and business profile pages.
- Further, individuals may have a personal account but use that account to promote or develop business. This frequently happens with service providers using Facebook or LinkedIn accounts.
As to the disputes that may arise, they frequently involve issues similar those in the case Ardis Health, LLC v. Nankivell (S.D.N.Y., 2011). In that case, the plaintiffs sued to recover login and password information from a former employee who managed the social media accounts. The case was decided
The ownership dispute was decided in favor of the company because the defendant signed an agreement at the start of her employment providing that all work created or developed by defendant “shall be the sole and exclusive property” of [plaintiff] in whatever stage of development or completion.”
Employer and Employee Considerations
Resolving ownership over a social media accounts will often turn on numerous factors. But one step that employers should take to avoid protracted litigation in an ownership dispute over social media is to squarely address the issue in your employment company’s employment agreement.
On this point, your company may succeed in recovering a social media account based upon general contractual provisions for the return of confidential or company information. Such provisions are often found in employment agreements but may not specifically address social media. However, we recommend employers include express provisions addressing ownership of and access to social media accounts. Conversely, individuals need to understand what they may be giving up relative to social media rights.
For more information about social media and employment issues, contact attorney Jason Shinn. He has represented individuals and companies in ownership disputes and other claims involving social media issues arising out of the employment relationship. He also has extensive experience when it comes to using social media evidence in employment and non-compete litigation.