Who owns information stored on a social media account?

Nowadays the vast majority of businesses have a presence on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The rise of social media undoubtedly can help a business grow. It can also raise challenges for employers seeking to protect their trade connections, confidential information and goodwill.

These challenges include:

• Wide availability of data.
• The public nature of social networking sites.
• Difficulty in forming a distinction between personal and company property.
• Speed of online communication.

In many respects the law has not caught up with the advances in technology over the last few years. More and more clients are now asking us who owns the information stored on their social media accounts.

Social media accounts associated with a business can contain valuable information. For example, the account holder’s connections, friends and/or followers will add up to an identifiable list of clients, customers or people of interest to the business that can be easily identified and contacted.

Social media accounts are usually owned and operated by individuals on their employer’s behalf. This is by design as the terms and conditions will often state that stored content is owned by the user.

The prime example of this is in the LinkedIn User Agreement (Clause 3: Rights and Limits) which states:

“You own the content and information that you submit or post to the Services.” 

This makes it relatively simple for a former employee to allege ownership of a social media account they operated during their employment.
However, much of the caselaw around this matter generally works in the employer’s favour.

In Pennwell Publishing (UK) Ltd v Ornstein it was held that a journalist’s contact book belonged to the employer because it was kept on the employer’s computer system. Even though it included personal and business contacts the employee had prior to joining the employer.

In Whitmar Publications Ltd v Gamage and others an employee tried to claim ownership of 4 LinkedIn groups she operated during her employment, but her claim was unsuccessful. The court held that she dealt with the LinkedIn groups for the benefit of the employer and those groups operated for the employer’s benefit and promoted its business. An order was made handing over management and control of the LinkedIn group to the employer.

The general rule seems to be that where a social media account is operated for the employer’s benefit it will belong to the employer. But an employee will have a right of ownership over a personal social media account. As long as they haven’t illegally obtained data from their employer’s database.

If you have any questions relating to your, your business’ or your employees’ social media accounts – including regarding any negative or defamatory comments that you may have received via social media – please email Andrew.broadbent@keebles.com or call Andrew on 0114 252 1416.

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