Your Company May Own Your Tweets, Pokes, and YouTube Videos

Your Boss May Own Your Facebook Wall Posts
Both employers and employees may be surprised to find that employee created blog posts, YouTube, LinkedIn profiles, Facebook profiles, and even tweets may be owned by companies. Yes, even those personal pictures you took last Friday with your loved ones, or direct messages in Twitter could belong to your employer. Why is this? Employees sign employment contracts that may indicate that all intellectual property created during employment may be owned by the company, let’s dive into what you should know:

Work, Online, and Life Mix
As employees check personal websites at work (and likely on work computers) they are indeed using corporate infrastructure. Similarly, as employees do work from home in the evening on personal or work computers the lines continue to blur.  It can become even more blurry, as the work and lifestyle content share on social networks becomes one in the same. For example, a LinkedIn account that describes an individual’s career goals which she uses to network with prospects is both personal and work related. Secondly, a product manager who announces new features using his Twitter account is discussing work-related content.

Social Accounts Created At Work, Who Owns Them?
What becomes even more dizzying is the thousands of professionals that have career-related blogs that attract companies in the first place. Who owns their blog posts during their tenure at a company? If an employee generated revenue from those blog posts should the revenue go back to the employer? What if a career blog is launched during employment at a company and discusses information related to the company, or a LinkedIn profile during employment, who owns them?

Case Example: Cisco’s CTO on Twitter and Her Million+ Followers
The real question is: Would a company even want this information? I discussed this on Twitter and many scoffed at the ideas that a company would want bits of 140 characters at a time. Take for example the Twitter account of Padmasree of Cisco. She created this account during her employment at Cisco, and talks about both personal and Cisco related content. Her Twitter account, as the CTO of Cisco is on the suggested users list by Twitter and she has over 1,200,000 followers. This is clearly an asset to her and Cisco, and if she leaves would be a loss to Cisco. I’ve spoken in public with Jeanette Gibson of Cisco communications, and they make it clear it is an account owned by Padmasree, she owns it if she decides to leave Cisco.

Guest Post: Perspective From A Lawyer
I’m not a lawyer, so I’ve asked one to comment on this topic. I recently moderated a panel at Blog World Expo on the topic of sponsored conversations, and I was delighted to meet Attorney Lisa J Borodkin, (her blog, Twitter) who specializes in federal court litigation and the resolution of complex commercial disputes. Her substantive expertise is copyright, trademark and new media law. She commented on this post draft post, and gave me permission to publish the following, which are completely in Lisa’s words, she writes:

“There are several dimensions to this issue.

First, the contract law aspect.

It’s important in the age of the blog and Twitter that people understand that a clause claiming all “intellectual property” created during the term of employment would be property of the company would cover tweets and blog posts. This provision would also cover anything else creative the person did on the side, as a hobby, such as writing a screenplay, or creating a comic strip, even purely for fun.

For this reason, when I represent entertainment executives who are presented with this type of clause in an employment contract, I ask that it be restricted only to intellectual property created within the scope of their job duties under the agreement. The rationale is that if you are not being paid to create something, then the company shouldn’t own your output simply because it is created during the term of employment. That would be a windfall for the company. So it’s a new twist on an issue that has been around for a while. The twist is that when these provisions were first written, I doubt anyone ever thought of blogging or Twitter. So this ownership should be only tied if possible to the type of job the person is hired for.

Second, the copyright law aspect.

Most terms of service for blog hosting sites and Twitter provide that the user is the author and owns the copyright in the blog post or Tweets. (Here’s a link to a blog post I wrote on the subject: http://lisaborodkin.com/ip-protection-for-blog-posts/ ) They also provide that, by using the blog hosting provided by the site, the user grants a perpetual free license to the blog host for using the content. This is a pretty fair distribution of rights. Everyone wins.

The point here is that company “ownership” of the blog or tweet content is not the only option. For most company purposes, a shared license or joint copyright would probably also be just as beneficial. For the blogger, ensuring that the blogger is always credited as the author of the work with a credit and trackback or link is probably the key condition.

Third, the policy aspect.

The larger question is whether the job or industry the person is in is of the type that a company would find it beneficial for the person to be blogging during work hours or using work equipment. There is a good online database of social media policies from a variety of companies at http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php They vary wildly, from PR firm Porter Novelli’s “Never comment anonymously” rule, to the EFF’s detailed advice on “How to blog anonymously.” As you state, the reality is that people will blog, Tweet and use social networks, and it is healthier for companies to embrace that and recognize the value in such individual activities, where it is beneficial to the company’s mission.

By now I hope everyone realizes that thousands of lawyers every day are fully employed in reviewing millions of company emails that have been subpoenaed in lawsuits all over the world. As long as a company reminds everyone that they have no right of privacy in anything that goes through the company’s computer systems, and that this extends beyond email to social networks, then employers and employees can undertake these activities mutually aware of the risks and rewards. The hope is that both will find shared value in mixing social media with work and allocate the potential economic rewards in an equitable manner.”

Jeremiah: Thanks Lisa for your insight, it’s interesting that many employees probably don’t realize that content that goes through the company’s systems is owned by the employer –even their personal Facebook messages.

Key Takeaways

  • Companies are attracted to potential employees with the ability to communicate online, and those that have a built-in following, yet the rights over the content created aren’t entirely clear.
  • Both personal and work lives are mixing online and off, creating blurry lines between ownership of content.  In many cases, legacy employment contracts give ownership to the company –even personal created content on company systems.
  • Employees are creating social content that relates to work often on company-owned property, or during work hours.

Recommendations:

  • Employees should get educated on this topic and find out what it means in your existing employment contract.  Get a lawyer that understands the language of the contract, and can advise and protect you.
  • Employees should carefully review their existing employee contract to know the boundaries, risks, and liability for their online activity.
  • Employees should understand how to create a “carve out” in the employment contract for personal created media.
  • Companies should understand benefits and risks, then evaluate their social media policy and update it to reflect the changing world of social as personal and work lives collide.
  • Companies and employees should setup training, policies, and a dedicated group within a company to help employees to understand best practices in the new world where personal and work content collide in the workplace and at home.

Updated: Someone tweeted this related cartoon out.
Tweets