Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter – Who Owns Your Twitter Account

Last week I read an article on that presented the results of a survey of c-level executives regarding employees and social networks.  According to the survey from Deloitte, 60% of c-level executives interviewed believe they have a right to know how their employees represent themselves and their companies on social networking sites.  On the flip side, 53% of employees surveyed believe their activities on social networking sites should be of no concern to employers.  So, are the executives corporate lurkers, protective business owners, authoritative leaders, or just clueless about social networking?

A Legal Overview of Twitter Ownership

Unfortunately, social networking is so new, that there isn’t a solid answer yet.  In addition, and more importantly, there’s no legal precedent, which means this can be a very messy situation.  But hold on, is there legal precedent?  More on that soon.  By the way, the legal implications of social networking and ownership of accounts has become increasingly hot over the past year or so.  You can read great posts by Beth Harte and John Jantsch about the subject, and both yielded some very interesting comments.  You can tell this topic hits a nerve for both employees and executives (and is especially touchy for those of us in between who help companies with social media strategy).

As I’ve been helping companies with their online marketing efforts, developing social media strategies has obviously become an increasingly important element.  And as I’ve been participating in and evangelizing Twitter, some core questions keep coming up.  Employees often ask how to best connect with a target audience, how to build a following, what to tweet, Twitter etiquette, etc.  But when speaking with executives, the conversation usually moves in another direction.  “Glenn, who owns the accounts we are setting up?”  That’s when I grab a conference room with a white board and start explaining the 500 shades of grey that are associated with my response.

It’s just not an easy answer, right?  For example, was the account set up while working for the organization or was it already established?  What role does that employee have in the company?  Is that person focused on social media marketing, community management, or do they focus on something else unrelated to marketing?  Are they tweeting about the company and industry?  The white board diagram I create typically looks like a grapevine of connections, risks, and potential legal pitfalls.  Subsequently, I can’t wait to erase it after the conversation. :)

But is the situation really that unclear?  Is there legal precedent?  Are we just trying to convince ourselves that our Twitter accounts are our own?  I didn’t have the answers, so I enlisted the help of a lawyer to try and answer some of these questions.  That’s right, I walked right into the lion’s den.  That’s how I roll.  Read on.

A Lawyer I Actually Like…

There aren’t many people in business that get up in the morning and say, “I can’t wait for that meeting with Legal today!” I understand why, but I’ve always been heavily interested in business law.  And whether you like it or not, lawyers are a necessary evil in business. Those of you who have started your own businesses understand this already, and for those of you thinking about launching a business, please read the first part of this sentence again.  Although it will cost you money, time, and aggravation, having the right lawyer assisting you as you grow your business can save you 10x the amount in the long term. And if you look past the strong-minded views, excessive talking, and getting billed for faxes, you can actually learn a lot from lawyers. :)

While thinking about Twitter ownership, I decided to call Mike Pisauro, a lawyer I know from Princeton, NJ.  Mike focuses heavily on business law and commercial litigation.  I have always found him to be a wealth of legal knowledge, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a cool guy.  And since Mike is on Twitter and learning more about online marketing, I think he provides a solid foundation in how law and social networking play together (or don’t play together depending on your perspective).

I brought up several situations to Mike that are happening today with regard to Twitter, and I asked him to analyze each situation to see who owns the Twitter account (from a legal perspective).  I’ll be honest, sometimes I didn’t like what he had to say.  :)  But that’s why you need a lawyer!  They will give you real-world advice based on real-world cases.   That’s versus the “I’m above the law because I have thousands of followers” answer.  There’s a big difference between the two, especially since many judges probably think Twitter is that sound their pacemaker emits when they have too much coffee.

My Take On Who Owns Your Twitter Account:

Based on what I do for a living, I’m forced to look at this situation from a few perspectives.  One from being an avid online marketer, blogger, and Twitter user.  I’m a huge believer in how powerful Twitter can be for connecting with a targeted audience.  I also know how powerful blogging and Twitter can be for getting the word out about a specific subject (and how that can impact natural search rankings).  And yes, I’m also that guy talking to people on the plane, in cabs, on the train, and at Starbucks about the power of Twitter.  But, I also have to look at Twitter from the perspective of the executives I help.   Twitter is so new to them, which leads to a lot of confusion about the subject.  Actually, some barely know what Twitter is, how it can be used, and more importantly for people like us, how it can impact the bottom line.  And yes, it absolutely can do that for those of you not convinced yet.  But as I build strategies that incorporate Twitter, almost all of the c-level executives I have helped ask the question, “Who owns the Twitter account?”

So, to help provide a better answer than, “there are many shades of grey…” I decided to list some common scenarios.  I’ll provide my take and then Mike will dissect each one from a legal perspective.

1. Grandfathered Twitter Accounts

    The account has been set up for a while and the employee will help the company on Twitter occasionally.  The account already has Twitter Equity (followers, influence, etc.)

    In this scenario, the employee already has a Twitter account with a following before he started working for the company.  The employee has not been hired as the social media marketing manager or community manager, but he will help get the word out about company-related initiatives from time to time.  The core point being that Twitter is not part of the job description.  For example, Joe Employee has 3400 followers and his account is over two years old.  He uses his account to tweet about a number of subjects, one including the industry he’s in.  But, he was not hired to do this for the company and it’s not his primary responsibility.  To me, this account is Joe’s and the company he works for has no right to claim ownership of his account or his followers.  If he keeps going down the path of growing that account, and it has no direct connection to the company, then he owns it.

    Mike: Glenn, all of my answers must begin with a couple of caveats (what do you expect from a lawyer?).  From the initial get go no can own another person so no one can own followers (again sometimes we must state the overly obvious).  Now that is out of the way, the question is really two fold.  First, who retains the right to maintain or use the list of followers?  Second, who owns the content of the tweets?

    Glenn Gabe
    Featured SEO Writer for SEJ Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Advertising, Social Media Marketing, and Web Analytics. Glenn has over 18 years of experience and has held leadership positions both in-house and at a global interactive agency. During his career, Glenn has helped clients across a wide range of industries including consumer packaged goods (CPG), ecommerce, startups, pharmaceutical, healthcare, military, education, non-profits, online auctions, real-estate, and publishing. You can follow Glenn on Google+ here.

    Comments are closed.

    22 thoughts on “Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter – Who Owns Your Twitter Account

    1. Very interesting perspective and thank you for looking at things from a factual basis. It’s so easy to get caught up and forget that ultimately there are laws that prevail. I think this post underlines the importance of individuals defining a focus for their social networking endeavors. Knowing what your efforts are for, and keeping the account focus on them, can avoid the 500 shades of gray.

      Great post, Glenn.

    2. Technical legalities aside, to me there should be a very clear distinction. If the account is set up in the employee’s name and using the employee’s email address, it is hers. Period. If that account is used to help the company, the company should be saying “Thank you”, not suing. If the company wants to own an account, it should set one up under its own name using an email address it owns and controls. Pretty simple, in my mind. Of course, if things are not made clear by the company from the start and they just sort of grow organically, there could be gray areas of problems. Thanks for the state-of-the-law overview.

    3. Great source of information. This raises issues I have often thought but never verbalized. I am going to look up some case law and see if I can find anything. have a great day.

    4. Glenn,
      With the plethora of social media posts about social media’s rising influence and importance, it is striking to come across a post about social media that stands out, is informative and on a subject whose real rising importance is currently understated. Hopefully creating an acronym (SNEA) will give authority to an issue that will undoubtedly become a main source of income for lawyers to come! :) In all seriousness, the best way to avoid Twitter ownership issues is to create and abide by an employees agreement. Kudos to for putting this article together!

      Sara @ iGoMogul (comment and RT property of iGoMogul)

    5. Glenn,
      With the plethora of social media posts about social media’s rising influence and importance, it is striking to come across a post about social media that stands out, is informative and on a subject whose real rising importance is currently understated. Hopefully creating an acronym (SNEA) will give authority to an issue that will undoubtedly become a main source of income for lawyers to come! :) In all seriousness, the best way to avoid Twitter ownership issues is to create and abide by an employees agreement. Kudos to you for putting this article together!

      Sara @ iGoMogul (comment and RT property of iGoMogul)

    6. Thanks @Matt Leonard. After speaking with Mike and knowing what I know about law, it really does make sense to map out a SNEA. Sorry, I had to use my new acronym. :) It’s smart to speak with a lawyer and figure out your agreement PRIOR to starting the job. That should make the situation much clearer. Unfortunately, the courts aren’t filled with Twitter-savvy judges!

    7. Thanks @David. I think you bring up some great points about the Twitter account in question. I tend to agree with you, however, companies and employees are not mapping out these agreements yet (for the most part). My guess is that they will become more standard in the near future, especially once lawsuits start hitting… It should be interesting to see how this progresses!

    8. Thank you so much @Sara. I ‘m glad you liked my post. It was great to hear Mike’s analysis of each scenario. As usual, he brought a very real-world view to the conversation.

      I agree with you about creating a SNEA (OK, that’s the second time I’m using my new acronym). It seems like the smartest way to proceed if you are going to be involved in any social media marketing efforts for your company.

      And yes, I think social media employee agreements will be nice source of revenue for lawyers in the future! I just hope people start thinking about them before they start tweeting.

    9. Whoa. I didn’t know companies go out of their way to tweet and don’t understand also why they’d need to. Are you talking about offline companies here?

      Anyway, I think twitter is for everyone as long as they welcome it.

    10. Wow lot’s of very interesting different Twitter ownership scenarios here. I’m so glad I work for myself and don’t have to worry about my company trying to claim ownership of my Twitter account. he he. 😉

    11. Proving once again that there’s value in long blog posts. Easily one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time; thanks for digging deeper.

    12. Sorry Glenn but all of the above from a legal standpoint are useless. From a procedural viewpoint i think you have come up with some good ideas and GREAT guidelines.. and ways people should understand who does what at a workplace but here are the facts.

      a. social media is NOT new.. just the words used to describe the activity, an account on someone else BBS, even an old AOL chat account was owned by AOL, even if you were paying 14.95/month for 2600bps access
      or IRC chat account or ANYTHING ON SOMEONE ELSES SERVERS. And yes there was AOL accounts created in a companies NAME that participated in chat for pay.. posted bulletins, had fans sing up to buddy lists, etc.. when i worked for AOL doing “chat room moderation” i had an account setup with a special username by AOL, when i left, they kept that account and someone else cahtted as that account.

      If everyone and their dog all left twitter and joined the same AOL channel on the same network, it would be just like twitter.. less functionality.. but pretty much the same stream..

      Who owned my everquest account? SONY!!!
      yes i paid monthly, yes i have intellecual property under the name “paisley amoeba” but those rights DID NOT extend to Everquest, unless someone else had used it and i had sued Sony for using a trademarked term. The usernames on everquest were coded to not allow a copyrighted term for a user account.

      B. who owns your twitter account?
      there is no payment for services rendered, no agreed upon SLA, hence no compensation for ownership. If twitter goes away tomorrow, you don’t got jack… the money the client paid you to setup the account, etc.. does NOT matter.. Twitter owns EVERYTHING on your twitter account. All of these may have your companies name but the company DOES NOT OWN THEM.. your digg account, your stumbleuon account, your facebook account.. ALL OWNED by the website owners. not the individual.

      C. Legal things about twitter.. here’s the problem with getting legal advice from someone who “is learning Social Media” they haven’t been in court on internet (social media) issues there is no “stare decisis” they can pull from. The guy seems nice enough to help you out but i didn’t see anything legal other than civil “intent” and some good “best practices” from a corporate perspective.

      LEGALLY, the main factors are:

      1. is the name copyrighted?
      2. is someone not affiliated with the company using an account with a copyrighted term?
      3. unless it’s YOUR personal social network, you own nothing. not even the intellectual property of your own tweets. (unless of course u are using a TM or © term in a tweet), then Twitter does NOT supercede your IP rights.

      D. Copyright. trademarks, etc..
      Google owns the TM %reg; etc.. for “google” therefore they OWN THE RIGHTS to ANYONE using that trademarked/registered term. Does that mean they own the account..
      NO!!!!!!!!! again.. Twitter owns the account.
      Can google sue someone for using it w/o their permission? YES!

      E. If an employee sets up the twitter account while working for Google in most states that is a work product and owned by the company if it is setup under a Google product name, trademarked/copyrighted term, etc.. if you create an account under a companies name and get paid for it.. that is a service you have provided, but still for someone else.
      (this is where your legal advice above is good.. as to who does what)

      F. if @mattcutts sets up his account under his name, google can’t tweet as @mattcutts unless HE releases his claim to his name or he lets them. So if it’s YOUR name.. it’s YOUR intellectual property, however again.. TWITTER OWNS the account.

      We have @MCCPR at my office, i set it up.. 3 people have used the account, only the person whose job it is to tweet for us uses that account but after that person left, someone else would use it.

      my account @steveplunkett is mine. yes i try and behave because i represent my company on twitter. but if i left, i would simply change my employer and move on. of course if Twitter still existed then.

      Do you think you own your own domain? nope.. you lease it thru a leasing agency called a “registrar” on a yearly basis.

      Summary: unless we are talking about a companies own social network on servers they own.. they own NOTHING.

    13. Melinda, I would be very interested if you uncovered any caselaw. Please let me know.

      @steveplunkett, while you are right Twitter could go away tomorrow and no one could stop it. The real question for the article was who could continue to control the account? The employee or the employer?

    14. @Gerald, yes you’re probably safe unless you decide to go after yourself legally some day! :) I’m hearing more and more questions about Twitter account ownership (from executives), and there’s no doubt this is going to lead to lawsuits. That’s why I think a SNEA is the safest way to go.

    15. @David, great post about the situation! As Mike pointed out in his comment on your post, just setting up the account in the person’s name doesn’t necessarily clear up the situation legally. I think the SNEA would help your fictitious @MaryWilkins greatly. :)

    16. Thanks @Dan Perry. I’m glad you liked the post. I often tell myself to keep it brief, but it ends up being long anyway! Add a lawyer’s perspective (Mike), and it had no chance of being short. :)

    17. @Steve, thanks for your thorough comment. You bring up some interesting points. But as Mike pointed out, we are talking about who owns the specific account, the employee or employer. There inevitably will be lawsuits about who owns the Twitter account and the courts will ultimately make the decision. I think the only way to have a clear answer is to have something in writing. It seems that Mike agrees (and it makes a lot of sense from a legal perspective).

      I think we will see this unfold over the next few years, as more and more companies leverage social networking as part of their overall marketing efforts. One thing is for sure… it should be interesting. :)

    18. @steveplunket, sounds unreal and trying to be more realistic…its like watching an action movie and discussing abt the stunts..which is baseless…whatif we die…what if the entire web crashes…i guess we are talking about practical things that we use day in and day out..anyway other information is great…cheers…

    19. You cannot make an employer understand that there is value in the account an employee tweets from if he has no clue from the get go. This is not something that should enter the court room unless here is indeed the company’s name attached to the account.