Who Owns What? Navigating Ownership Issues Related To Social Media Assets

September 21, 2012

Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn—and their smaller cousins like Pinterest, Google+, and seemingly innumerable others—have opened up new and innovative forums for businesses and brands to interact with customers.  Among the advantages these sites provide is the opportunity to personally interact with customers and to respond to customer demands (and complaints) in real-time.  At the same time, the rapid employment of these sites in day-to-day marketing and business plans has produced legal headaches for in-house and outside counsel.  Two particular questions that can produce those headaches are: Who actually owns those social media assets that are developed, accessed, and often controlled by company employees?  And what are the implications of ownership issues among a company’s social media assets?

To answer those questions, you have to first figure out what your social media assets are.  Social media assets can be broken down into three basic components:

  1. General user information, including account usernames and passwords;
  2. User-generated content like text, pictures, and links posted to a user’s profile and the profiles of others; and
  3. Most importantly, relationships formed with other users on social media sites.

Untangling the overlapping—and often unclear—ownership interests between companies and their employees within each of these components requires separating out expectations and establishing a clear understanding of where boundaries exist.  It also requires thorough review of each site’s terms of use, as well as an assessment of the intended and possible ways a company and its employees may use each site.But in addition to the base question of who owns company-related social media assets there lies more issues implicated by use of those assets.  For example, the extent to which a company owns or doesn’t own social media accounts accessed by employees can have broad impacts to its discovery obligations in litigation.  Intellectual property issues and wrongful attribution of illegal or unsavory content on social media sites can also cause problems for companies if there isn’t clarity with regard to its ownership of those social media assets.

 As it stands, social media technology is evolving at a far faster pace than the law concerning social media assets.  While the law can sometimes seem two steps behind the applicable technology, there are strategies companies can employ to limit liability before problems occur.  These include fully defining the boundaries of employees’ work-related social media assets; reviewing and revising social media policies; and engaging in open discussions with employees regarding how a company views ownership of social media assets.  Taking these steps can help companies avoid ambiguities—and litigation—related to the ownership of social media assets even as the technology outstrips the law.

To learn more about this topic, please click here to attend a CLE webcast entitled:

Company vs. Employee Ownership of Social Media Assets: Who Owns What and What are the Implications?