Who owns Twitter followers?

October 18, 2011

This issue was highlighted when Laura Kuesnssberg, the former BBC chief political correspondent, left to join ITV and shortly after changed her Twitter account name – with its over 60,000 followers - from BBCLauraK to ITVLauraK. ITV News said that her Twitter following was an ‘additional benefit’ of hiring her.

The first question to ask is if the former employer had a “Social Media Policy” to which the employee would have been bound. Many employers are introducing such policies to manage the legal risks of social media in relation to - for example - reputation, defamation, intellectual property, confidential information and ownership of contacts.

If there is no such policy, and no relevant clauses in the employment contract, the former employer is in a weak position. They may try to argue that the account belongs to them as it was created by the employee in the course of employment. However, Twitter accounts tend to blend personal and business and it is far from certain that such an argument could succeed.

If there is copyright in a tweet, which is not inevitable, then that may belong to the employer in accordance with the rules regarding ownership of copyright in employee works. However, a tweet is ephemeral and owning the copyright will not help the former employer capture the followers.
If the Twitter name includes a brand of the former employer, they could require the name to be changed – but the new company will also want that.

The main issue is in relation to the followers. While the law may protect a company’s contact database held securely on its internal systems, it is unlikely to protect Twitter followers who are self-selecting and anything but confidential. It could be said that no one “owns” followers and in reality it is they who decide whether to follow the director into her new role.

Related pages:

Intellectual property more

Intellectual property for Technology more

Technology, Media & Digital more

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