Who Owns Your Work Social Media Account?

Twitter is great, but if you use it for your company, you may want to pay attention to this court case in Virginia.
Twitter is great, but if you use it for your company, you may want to pay attention to this court case in Virginia. Photo by Esther Vargas via Flickr
Social media seems like a straightforward thing. Your tweets and 'grams and posts are your own words — most of the time — and thus, belong to you. But, what if you work for a company and you post to social media in support of that entity? What happens when you decide to move to another company? Does your former employer get to keep your handle, your content and your followers?

That is the question being asked in a case between a sports reporter and his former employer in Virginia, the Roanoke Times, and it brings up some pretty interesting talking points. And it is worth asking some rather critical questions if your social media accounts have any level of interaction with your employer.

It's worth noting that this probably won't intertwine with Facebook. Fan pages are rather unique animals highlighting one person or a company. The two don't typically merge, so it would seem that area of the social media world would remain free from all this. But, Twitter and Instagram are different stories.

Who owns images?

Obviously, if you allow a media entity to use your Instagram or Twitter images in their publication, website or broadcast, you are committing to a certain level of limitation of your copyright. Media outlets have contracts that govern who owns images when they are used. However, how many companies have guidelines in place for that sort of thing? This may be something you want to find out.

More critically, do those companies claim any degree of ownership of the photos not published on one of their platforms? What if you just post a photo on Instagram? Do they own that as well? Legal standing for certain things might be murky, but photos still feel like a physical thing even when they live in a virtual world, and there has certainly been more legal precedent set for copyright of images than other social media elements.

Who owns the content?

In most cases, it would seem that text would fall under similar set of rules. Certainly companies monitor what their employees say and do in the context of representing the company. But, does the company get to claim ownership over what someone tweeted? That is what the case above is alleging. It feels like a reach considering the tweets are on an independent platform and not on a website or broadcast platform owned by the media organization, but it is worth knowing what your company policy is regardless.

Who owns the name?

This is trickier than you might think. Frankly, companies would be smarter to simply set up social media accounts with company names only. But, they understand that, particularly on Twitter, people want to connect with other people, not entities. As a result, large companies have employees who post under a name that includes the company name. You'll see this with customer service representatives from places like Comcast who have names like ComcastMike. Many media outlets do the same.

But, handles are easily changed across most social media platforms. So, if you go from being ComcastMike to DirectTVMike, it's probably no big deal overall except that the account remains the same even if the name is different. The content and images remain, for example. But, the truth is most companies probably don't care all that much about the content. What they want is, for them, far more valuable...

Who owns the followers?

At the end of the day, this is where the rubber meets the road for organizations like the Roanoke Times. The argument goes something like this: If you amassed a bunch of followers as an employee of a company, wouldn't those followers belong to the company because, after all, you didn't get them by just being you, right? Naturally, these followers are also extremely valuable to any entity. In the above case, the Times claims it would cost them $150,000 to recover those followers, but even then, it wouldn't be the same.

They are probably right. Twitter is unique in that people gravitate toward personalities who also provide information. A trusted source of information who is also interesting is a magnet for interested followers. It's no wonder they want to keep that resource. And they may have a point. Would the sports reporter have the followers he does if he were just a blogger?

All of these are among questions that courts will have to address in the coming years. Technology makes matters like these difficult not only to understand but to litigate. One thing is for sure, however, if you do use social media on behalf of your company but with your name attached, you may want to brush up on your company's policies if you decide to leave.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke