January 5, 2012

Employer Ownership of Employee Social Media Accounts; The War Continues

Posted in Best practices, Courts and social media, Criminal activity, Employee issues, Productivity, Social networking policy, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 4:08 pm by bizlawblog

'Kinghts jousting at the TRF' photo (c) 2010, Frank Kovalchek - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/The topic of employee vs. employer ownership of social media accounts continues to be a popular source of concern and litigation. I wrote a post on this here about two years ago, Employer Ownership of Employee Social Media Accounts, and have periodically commented on it in the Social Media Search and Forensics group I started on LinkedIn. A few recent cases, however, indicate many involved in social media don’t really understand or appreciate some of the concepts which provide a foundation for decisions in this area, so it seems like time for a little update.

In the two short years since my initial post on this topic, the extent to which social media has become integrated into both our personal and employment related lives is astounding. At some point we will reach “saturation” but we’re still on an upward path. Facebook, for instance, was purely “social” a couple of years ago, but now is a primary, if not the only channel for marketing many businesses. Likewise, Twitter seemed to be just an abbreviated messaging system and YouTube a playground for budding artists. Now, both are key components of Fortune 100 marketing plans.

LinkedIn and other social media platforms continue to struggle with ways to gain users and financial value. Part of their strategy to accomplish this seems to be to attempt to be all things to all people. One part of the related action plan would appear to be to blur distinctions between the purely social and the purely business aspects of their services. Each of these major social media platforms must realize it is in a life and death struggle for superiority in the marketplace. If any of them lose market share or stagnate, they could easily become just another tombstone along the goldrush trail.

Talented employees are typically the most valuable “asset” of any business. Talented business owners know this and do their best to lure the most talented employees to their enterprise. In over forty years of practicing law, I’ve seen this in almost every field of clients I’ve represented. Employers do all sorts of things to find and lure key employees away from the competition. Employees, on the other hand, periodically realize they might “do better” somewhere else, and decide to jump ship. Often, the result is not pretty for anybody but the lawyers, who are hired to help straighten out the mess.

In many professions, the individuals who are most subject to this ship jumping and employee pirating syndrome are well aware of and respectful of issues such as non-compete agreements, trade secrets, etc. “Fortunately” for lawyers like me, there are always some who are not, so that keeps us busy tightening up the documentation for employers and negotiating contracts for key employees.

Although I’ve found lots of trouble on both the young and more seasoned ends of the employee-employer scale, I have to wonder if one reason this is a particularly hot topic in the social media world now, is because of the relatively younger age of key players there. Many of the “wizards” of the social media world, including employees and employers, are relatively younger, and perhaps less experienced in this part of the workings of the business world, than their counterparts just a few years ago.'Glass Mirror' photo (c) 2011, Leland Francisco - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

These days some of us old folks still joke about the sixteen year old CIO. How likely is it that they would fully understand the difference between the social and legal implications of a Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube following? Given what appears to be an intentional blurring of the social and the business use of these social media platforms by management, it almost seems inevitable that they would not.

While I don’t know the age of former employees, Mr. Kravitz, who is a defendant in the PhoneDog litigation in California, or Ms. Nankivell, defendant in the Ardis Health case in New York, recent court orders in both cases point out some of the issues I’m talking about. Both situations are excellent case studies for talented employees, entrepreneurs, CIOs, HR folks, investors, and, of course, the lawyers who represent them.

The Ardis case

The Order in the Ardis Health case tells a fairly typical story. Ms. Nankivell was hired by serial entrepreneur, Jordan Finger. Finger, who is in his mid 30s, and lists his hobbies as “Trying to Play Golf, Race Cars and Race Boats.” He was also the sole founder of a group of online product marketing companies, for whom Ms. Nankivell was hired for the purpose of “producing videos and maintaining websites, blogs, and social media pages in connection with the online marketing of plaintiffs’ products.” According to the court’s Order, her “responsibilities with respect to plaintiffs’ online presence included maintaining passwords and other login information for websites, email accounts, and social media accounts.”

If things had gone well, we probably wouldn’t know or care about much more of this story. As things turned out, however, the parties had a falling out. This is typically bad for both parties and good for the lawyers. Many of the elements of the facts of the case may seem all too familiar to those interested in this area of the law and the business of social media.

It appears that while Mr. Finger was busy creating companies and Web-based marketing services, Ms. Nankivell was busy creating the Web site platforms for her employer and searching for a better job. Eventually the two paths came to the proverbial fork in the road. Litigation ensued when the employee refused to return equipment or access information for her then former employer’s Web sites or online accounts.

Other familiar parts of the story include the fact that the original group of “closely affiliated” companies for whom the employee worked were so entangled that she sometimes was paid by one and sometimes by another. Additionally, the laptop she initially used in the work for the companies was owned by her, but replaced by the company when it wore out. This would seem to add some forensic work for the lawyers, which is always welcome and profitable for us, but seldom appreciated by clients on either side, because they are paying to straighten out the mess.

The good part of this for the employer should have been the fact that the employee was apparently required to sign a “work product agreement” to the effect that all work created or developed by her was the sole and exclusive property of the employer in whatever stage of development or completion, and that it was agreed to be prepared as work-for-hire within the meaning of the Copyright Act of 1976. The employer also successfully registered the trademark of the new Web service, and a copyright for the Web site.

After departure from Ardis, the employee began to display, as part of the portfolio of her work on her own personal websites, content from the Web site she had been developing for her former employer. Ardis, et al. filed suit against the former employee, seeking, among other remedies, return of the login information for the employer’s various Web sites, and that she refrain from using any of the employer’s “proprietary” content and work.

In fairly typical fashion, the employer moved for a preliminary injunction, and also in typical fashion, soon ran into trouble. Despite relatively clear contract language, the New York court refused to blindly accept the situation as presenting the “irreparable harm” required for the employer to prevail at the preliminary injunction stage. This is a critical strategic issue in many of these cases.

While the employer may ultimately “prevail” on the merits of the case, after expensive proof is developed, it may very well lose an early hearing seeking what lawyers and judges call the “extraordinary” remedy of a restraining order or temporary injunction. Some lawyers will allow pressure from panicked clients to persuade them to rush into court to stop the “evil defendant” from continuing to damage them by exploiting work product or alleged trade secrets owned by the employer. Others realize this initial hearing can very well spell the ultimate success and effectiveness of the litigation, and not seek the hearing until they are fully prepared to prevail. You can read more about the foundation for the Ardis court’s decision here: Memorandum and Order.

The PhoneDog case

The recent court order in the PhoneDog case tells a somewhat similar tale. Mr. Kravitz was employed by PhoneDog as a product reviewer and video blogger. He was apparently given use of a Twitter account, “@PhoneDog_Noah,” as part of his employment. He provided content concerning his employer through a variety of social media channels, including Twitter and the company Web site. The complaint alleges that Kravitz generated approximately 17,000 Twitter followers while employed by PhoneDog.

When Kravitz left the employment of PhoneDog, the company requested that he “relinquish use” of the Twitter account. Kravitz apparently chanced the account handle to 'Analyzing Financial Data' photo (c) 2010, Dave Dugdale - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/“@noahkravitz” and continued to use it. PhoneDog filed suit alleging it suffered at least $340,000 in damages as a result. It calculated this to be at the rate of an “industry standard” $2.50 per follower, per month, multiplied by the eight months which had elapsed when the claim was made.

Kravitz disputed PhoneDog’s claim of ownership of the account. He likewise disputed his former employer’s method of calculating the value of the Twitter followers, arguing that such additional factors as number of followers, number of tweets, content of tweets, person publishing the tweet, and person placing the value of the account were relevant but not included in PhoneDog’s calculations.

The court seemed inclined to determine that the Twitter account was actually owned by Twitter, according to its Terms of Service, although it stated that at this early stage of the litigation PhoneDog might be able to prove it had a “property interest” in the account. It also determined that the plaintiff had not sufficiently alleged facts to show how its former employee had disrupted the relationship between the employer and the Twitter followers, nor what economic harm this caused, and therefore dismissed the plaintiff’s claim of misappropriation of trade secrets.

Final Thoughts – For Now

The court order described here was also rendered at an early stage in the litigation, as was the one from the Ardis case. Both decisions are based upon one or more parties asking for what some lawyers might consider “risky” relief before they were ready to thoroughly prove entitlement to it. In fairness to all sides, this is common practice, but there is an art and a science involved here.

In these sorts of cases there are a multitude of jurisdictional, and claim-based issues, as well as stage of the litigation factors to be considered. For openers, there are “common law” rights, contract rights, and issues related to “work product,” work-for-hire, copyright, trademark or service mark issues, and other statutory schemes including definitions of what qualifies as a trade secret. Many jurisdictions have slightly differing judicial precedents concerning enforcement of non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, as well as case and statutory authority on claims such as conversion and interference with prospective economic advantage.

Even getting to the level of proving minimum damages to qualify to be in federal court was an issue in the PhoneDog case, so it should be clear bringing and defending these sorts of actions is no easy task for the parties or their legal counsel. These cases are often long and extremely expensive to litigate.

'The battle of lost forts ogre turn 2 (last turn sumary)' photo (c) 2009, Jon Ross - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Recent decisions on e-discovery cost sharing and social media spoliation should be enough to scare most potential litigants, but if not, there are articles suggesting some plaintiffs have begun to “weaponize” evidence preservation by sending a “litigation hold” letter “demanding preservation of electronically stored information with such breadth that corporations are settling just to avoid the cost of finding and protecting their own discoverable data.” Ability to fund the litigation is all too often a deciding factor in which side wins these cases.

Given this sort of track record of budding entrepreneurs and talented employees seeking upward mobility, it would seem to make sense to spend sufficient time and thought on how best to incorporate both an appropriate corporate culture and legal documentation in such endeavors, in order to reduce the opportunity for such financially disastrous battles.

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