Do you really own your online profile?

imageThere have been some interesting issues recently over Intellectual property, privacy, profiles and blog styles.  Who really owns the content you produce on Twitter and your blog?   Who really owns your Twitter account? Who really owns the content you write on your blog? Why does it matter so much?

Blogs can bring big rewards for business.

Successful bloggers pull in hundreds of thousands of readers onto the blog.  A great blog can improve perception about a company. They bring awareness and reach for the blog site owner.  They bring new views to pages with associated advertising.  They bring revenue.  So by protecting their revenue streams its understandable that companies also want to protect their investment in maintaining their strong brand.

Bloggers with a strong personal brand can cost businesses dearly if the blogger decides to move on to another job..

The York Times sued AOL over Trademark infringement claiming that blogger Lisa Belkin had taken her Motherlode blog over to the Huffington post when she moved.  The Motherlode blog was actually still being published by the New York Times but Lisa had called her new blog ‘Parentlode’ to incorporate male and female parenting. The New York Times claimed that it would ‘confuse’ readers

Some companies have clauses in their employee guidelines which talk about IP ownership of content whilst you work for them.  If you have a multi million idea whilst you work for a company you could develop that idea and bring it to production.  This idea could turn into a thriving business and make you millions.  If the idea was somehow related to what your job was, then the company could have a claim on your potential fortune.

But what about followers and friends that you’ve built up over your time at the company?  What about your LinkedIn connections?  If you make connections in the normal course of your job, and add those connections to your LinkedIn profile, are they your connections – or are they part of the CRM database at your employer?

Your Twitter account is yours – isn’t it?

Laura Kuenssberg built up a strong following whilst at the BBC and took her personal Twitter account – and her followers with her when she joined ITV.  Phonedog sued Noah Kravitz when he left Phonedog and changed his Twitter username to noahkravitz, keeping his followers on his personal account.  Phonedog  sued Noah for “(1) misappropriation of trade secrets, (2) interference with economic advantage; and (3) conversion”  This ‘land grabbing’ by corporates over Twitter accounts raises an interesting point for those of you who use your personal online Twitter brand to communicate on behalf of a company.

If you register something on behalf of a company, or maintain a list of passwords and other data, then that data belongs to the company and should be returned when requested.  Similarly, any credentials should be returned to the company – who should already know the usernames and passwords used to access the account.

But is a company Twitter account really a trade secret?

It’s easy to see all followers and all that you’re following, your favourites are for everyone to see, as are your images and public Tweets.  A simple call to the api can track conversations and trends.  Is it really all that secret at all?  The only thing that is secret are Direct messages – and the logon password.  Techdirt sums the argument up well..

If you want him to Tweet as the company, give him the company account.  If you want to him to Tweet as himself, let him do so.  Suing for the account just seems silly and petty.

Rick Sanchez took his personal Twitter account with him when he was fired from CNN taking almost 150,000 Twitter followers with him too.  He tweeted about CNN as a business- but probably mixed in his personal Tweets in his main stream.  Most of us do this – even with corporate Twitter accounts.  Many people Tweeting about a company from a personal have a disclaimer on their Twitter account.  They usually state that their tweets are their own opinions and do not reflect the views of the company.  So why do some companies get so bothered about the loss of followers if they have allowed employees to blog as themselves.  The spam notes blog has some interesting points on how CNN could have incorporated some appropriate clauses into their social media guidelines:

If they had built in contractual protection, it could provide that upon termination:

(1) Sanchez would stop using the account immediately; (2) CNN would have access to Sanchez’s password at all times; (3) Sanchez would not post any public statements without CNN’s approval; and (4) Sanchez would turn over the account to CNN.

Who owns the brand?

If you want to ‘own’ the brand name such as @BTCare, @Bing, @Starbucks, @Ford and @Microsoft Twitter accounts then it’s better to create a corporate brand name and get members of the team to use the corporate account to broadcast on your behalf.  Then, when a team changes, a simple change in password will ensure that corporate identity is maintained.

If your internal staff have ‘personality’ Twitter accounts, be prepared to lose the followers if your employee leaves the company.  Make sure you have great guidelines and policies in place and make sure your measurements reflect the brand not the individual.  Taking staff to court in order to reclaim followers may rebound adversely on the brand.

If you followed a personality, and they left the company and their Twitter account remained with the brand, what would you do?  Would you stay with the brand or would you continue to follow the personality?

Who ‘owns’ the online brand, who ‘owns’ the ‘personality’?

The answer to one seems simple, the answer to the other could be argued in court for some time yet.   Make sure you’re very clear about who you really think you are – before you touch that keyboard…

Eileen is a social business strategist and author of Working The Crowd: Social Media Marketing for Business. Contact her to find out how she can help your business extend its reach.

Image credit: Flickr