Who owns that Twitter account?

Social networking accounts used for both personal and work purposes raise all sorts of legal questions

By Zach Miners, IDG News Service |  Internet

People searching for Eagle on LinkedIn were now routed to a page with Morgan's name and photograph -- but which still showed Eagle's honors, awards, recommendations and connections, according to the lawsuit she subsequently filed. That case is also pending.

The Maremont and Eagle cases, and others like them, are difficult to decide because there's little legal guidance today about who owns an employee's Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn account, and their associated contacts, when the account is used for work.

"Many employers today don't give much thought to post-employment ownership of, say, Twitter followers," said attorney Jennifer Archie, a privacy and data security specialist with Latham & Watkins, who has counseled dozens of employers about workplace policies and employee agreements related to social media.

An example of how far the issue is from many employers' minds played out last year when Jim Roberts, a prominent editor at The New York Times, left the paper, taking some 75,000 Twitter followers with him. The paper reportedly had no policy in place to address the issue, and the 26-year-old Times staffer simply changed his handle from @nytjim to @nycjim. The Times apparently opted not to sue. His current follower count: about 82,000.

Some, like Kletter, argue that because Twitter followers are typically real people, who can be seen by anyone clicking on a person's followers link, and who follow and un-follow accounts as they please, the legal basis for claiming ownership of them is questionable.

In cases where a social media account was created as a personal one before the employee joined the company, and then used for both personal and work purposes, it's likely even harder for an employer to claim ownership, Kletter said.

Determining what makes an account personal versus professional is tricky in an age of near-constant social networking, said Archie of Latham & Watkins.

"People's professional work often bleeds over into their personal time thanks to the interconnectedness of mobile devices, and that's only one way ownership disputes can arise," Archie said.

Facebook and LinkedIn each said via email that their official stance is that users own their accounts. Twitter's terms of service say its users own all the content they post to its site.

Because the dividing line between personal and professional is so blurry and varies with the job, the best way for employers to avoid legal disputes is to craft clear policies about how employees should use social media, and what happens to an account when an employee leaves the company.

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