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.

December 17, 2009

Employer Ownership of Employee Social Media Accounts

Posted in Best practices, Courts and social media, Employee issues, Facebook, LinkedIn, Productivity, Social networking policy, Twitter, Uncategorized, Web 2.0 tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 1:13 pm by bizlawblog

Over the last 35 years, I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with disputes between employees and their employers. I’ve been on both sides of the table, drafting and enforcing non-compete agreements, and helping employees break those, which did not adhere to legal or moral principles.

In “the old days,” some of the primary issues related to whether the employer could keep an employee, or former employee, from using information the employer said was “proprietary” and, in many cases, whether the now departed employee had been using that information, while still employed, to set up or assist a competitor. With the onset of social media, many “prospectors” are now using social media to find business prospects and to maintain a relationship with them.

In some cases, the employer will mandate that employee are to engage in using social media channels, such as LinkedIn and Facebook to hunt for prospects or deal with customer service issues. In some cases, it is the employee who suggests this tactic or uses it, often outside of the office environment, to do the prospecting. As is the case with the enforceability of non-compete agreements, there is a great deal of misinformation and confusion about what the law says about all this. As is also the case with non-compete agreements, what the law says may be different in different jurisdictions. In Kentucky, for instance, the case law has matured in different directions on some non-compete issues, between the state court system and the federal courts in Kentucky. This is great for lawyers, but not necessarily so for those trying to find their way.

The relatively new world of social media adds a new layer of complexity to this, and the ownership of social media accounts, as well as ownership of the contacts and other data contained therein, has become an increasing source of questions for employers and their lawyers. Many employers ban the use of social media, on site or off, and particularly prohibit unauthorized references to the employer, brands, other employees, “the boss,” etc. Some of these fears, as described in David Kelleher’s article, 5 Problems with Social Networking in the Workplace, are well deserved, and some are not. Fortunately for employers, most, if not all of this is easily clarified with some basic but well drafted documents.

Long before the advent of the social media age, employers routinely required employees to sign non-compete and non-disclosure agreements. If properly drawn, these agreements defined what intellectual property, including clients, prospects, and other proprietary or “sensitive” information belonged to the employer and was prohibited for post employment or other unauthorized use. Likewise, courts have dealt for many years with the issue of the employer’s right to monitor and screen employee communications, including e-mail.

What is relatively new these days is the ownership of social media accounts and content. I have represented many client groups, such as those in the insurance business, where it is relatively common for agents to take their “book of business” or client accounts with them from agency to agency. In many cases there are non-compete agreements binding the parties. Since moving around is so common, however, many agencies will agree to allow a well-networked agent to come in, with the option to take their “book of business” with them upon departure. Only new clients generated at the new agency, or other particular “house accounts” might be protected, in order to induce a successful agent to come on board. This too can be easily defined, and I’ve drawn up hundreds of these agreements over the years.

The ownership of an employee’s “personal” LinkedIn accounts and contacts, however, has not been well defined by the courts, at least on a specific basis. Likewise, Facebook and Twitter accounts are becoming some of the most valuable tools in the hunt for prospects and retention efforts to maintain current business. In many cases, these accounts have been created by an individual prior to the employment situation in which they are used. In some cases, it is the employer which provides the basics, and may even be setting up the account used by the employee. Witness the note from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, providing employees with a Beginner’s Quick Start Guide and Tutorial to Using Twitter. Once again, a clear employee use policy and non-compete agreement and NDA can resolve the issues to avoid most disputes and win the rest. Having a well thought out damage control procedure is also helpful.

For those not endowed with good legal and HR backup in these areas, social media sources can provide the answer to the many of the problems involved in their use. Typically, the cases involving confidentiality revolve around the expectation of privacy. A subset of this issue relates to whether a policy is in place, existence of password use, and other indications the social media content would normally and reasonably be anticipated to be private or something in which the employer had an interest. This has been the primary rule on e-mail accounts and content for many years and has been often litigated, even prior to the relatively new federal rules on e-discovery. This is not much different from court decisions indicating an employer can secretly videotape an employee on the job.

Beth Harte’s nice article on this, Who owns your Twitter or Facebook Connections?, is a good start. As she points out:

You might not like what I am about to say here, but I believe that if a company is paying you to connect with people online on their behalf…they own those connections…

Take my Twitter/Facebook accounts, I am Beth Harte on both. If I were to join a company in marketing capacity and continue to increase my connections while they are paying me, I believe those connections are the property of my employer. Or are they?

How do we address this potential issue? Here’s one thought…

Prior to accepting a job, negotiate that all followers/friends (existing or new) will remain your property and that the company has the right to “borrow” your accounts and connections for the period of your employment.

Using the example of my insurance agency clients, Harte’s suggestion would probably be:

Prior to accepting a job, negotiate that all followers/friends (existing or new) will remain your property and that the company has the right to “borrow” your accounts and connections for the period of your employment.

Does that work? Would employers buy into that? Would we need to prove the value of our accounts before they would accept those negotiating terms?

Blogging provides an even more interesting set of problems. Some, such as Chris Gatewood, feel “Employers cannot control their employees’ online conduct away from the office, and for the most part, they should not try.” In many cases, employee blogs are primarily personal, but may contain statements about their employer, the employer’s products or services, and sometimes about policies, other employees, etc. Likewise, it is easy for a current or former employee to “slip” and post something about a new technology the person has worked on, or other information the employer would consider proprietary. Once again, a good non-disclosure agreement can deal with these issues in advance.

Joshua-Michele Ross points out in his article, A Corporate Guide For Social Media:

Big corporations are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to harness the benefits of increased employee participation while mitigating the risks. Clearly there is no one-size-fits-all: If you are in financial services you have unique concerns for privacy, if you are part of the YMCA, you must be aware that having counselors “friend” teenagers is not appropriate, etc.

While there are possible negatives involved in having employees on the social Web, most employees have common sense. Begin with a set of possibilities first (increasing awareness, improving customer service, gaining customer insight and so on) then draw up a list of worst-case scenarios (bad mouthing the company, inappropriate language, leaking IP, to name a few). Modify the guiding principles for your employees below to help mitigate the risks you’ve identified.

Once you embrace having your employees participate in the social Web, give them a few basic guiding principles in how they conduct themselves.

While issues related to ownership of social media accounts and content are relatively well defined, in those cases where there are clear policies and agreements in place, as well as where the activity is clearly sponsored or encouraged by the employer, and the employee is using the employer’s resources to engage in such activities, the law is less settled in the case of pre-existing “personal” accounts used with a new employer, or used without the employer’s knowledge or resources. These can likewise be resolved easily with a good agreement, but we lawyers are waiting to pay our kids’ college tuition, dealing with those cases where the employer or employee has not been perceptive enough to resolve this in advance with a basic set of written agreements and policies.

This area of the law is rapidly changing and newer technologies, such as Twitter, and concepts such as “followers,” will provide the need for professional assistance to help manage these issues, and the risks they entail, for many years to come. Yesterday’s non-compete and non-disclosure agreement, as John Jantsch points out in his article, Do You Have a Social Media Non-Compete?, may not work tomorrow, unless it is particularly well drawn to provide for such new technologies and concepts.

I try hard to be proactive with my clients, but I “love” clients who get their legal advice, and forms, online and then have to make “The Call” to the lawyer to seek help. I believe it may have been GM’s Mr. Goodwrench commercials, which proclaimed, “pay me now or pay me later.” In these cases, the pay is much better for the lawyers “later” and for the parties, earlier.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.