Yes, it has come to this. Social media account disputes. Employers, employees and independent contractors rely on these accounts to establish network connections and to promote business opportunities. Guidelines, terms and conditions at sign-up aside, the turf war pits these formerly non-competing parties at the end of employment or upon termination of their business relationship. Particularly with accounts such as LinkedIn, one might believe the profile, education, skills and experience being of a personal nature, the account holder’s rights would be superior to an employer. However, as more companies establish branded accounts, ownership issues abound.
In the recent Eastern District of PA case Eagle v. Morgan the Plaintiff Linda Eagle brought suit against Defendants, Sandi Morgan and Edcomm, for Computer Fraud and Abuse, violation of the Lanham Act, and various misappropriation and business interference claims for the alleged improper use of her LinkedIn account. The Defendants filed a counterclaim alleging the Plaintiff misappropriated company property including a computer and the aforementioned LinkedIn account. Eagle holds a Ph.D. in communication and psychology. She was a co-founder of Edcomm, a bank training and educational company, and later along with her co-owners sold her Edcomm shares to Defendants in 2010, but remained employed at the company. In 2008, she had established a LinkedIn account sharing her password with her Edcomm secretary who helped her manage the account. Subsequent to the sale, she did not change her password. When involuntarily terminated at a meeting on June 20, 2011, the Defendants changed her password and she was locked out for a period of twenty-two weeks before regaining control of the account. Defendant Morgan, who ascended to Plaintiff’s duties at Edcomm, took over the account changing it to her name and using her picture. However certain information of Dr. Eagle detailing her professional education and experience was left unchanged. Eagle claimed this suggested an affiliation with Defendants that was misleading to her connections. She further claimed that Defendants use of the account was in effect a passing off of their services as having the qualities and characteristics of Dr. Eagle.
On Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court ruled in favor of Morgan and Edcomm indicating that Dr. Eagle had failed to show evidence of damages to support the Computer Fraud and Abuse claim. The Court said damages of this type must result from actual computer fraud or abuse. Evidence of lost business opportunities was not allowed. The Court then went on to say that there was no likelihood of confusion with respect to her trademark related Lanham Act Claim. While many of her LinkedIn connections may have been confused as to what happened to her account or about how to contact her, there was no evidence that anyone thought Ms. Morgan was Dr. Eagle. Any diversion of her networking contacts to Ms. Morgan and Edcomm was distinguished from likelihood of confusion though such diversion does give rise to certain misappropriation and interference claims that are still pending and headed to trial.
While the actual account ownership question has not been directly decided, certain guidelines for managing this type of occurrence seem clear. Set forth written guidelines outlining the terms and conditions of the ownership and use of social media accounts. Before employees or contractors with previously established accounts begin work, the company should consider either limiting work related access or requiring the use of a company branded account for its business.