Employer Ownership of Social Media Accounts

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

If you have a business with a social media footprint (and what business doesn’t, these days), ask yourself this question: "How confident are you that you own the social networking accounts through which you are building your customer base and brand recognition?"  If your answer is “confident,” you may want to think again.  A recent decision from a federal district court in Illinois shows that norms around ownership of business-related social media accounts are still evolving and remain murky at best.

In this case, Maremont v. Susan Fredman Design Group, Ltd., Jill Maremont was the director of marketing for a design firm, SFDG.  Maremont worked on social media campaigns for SFDG and established a blog that was hosted on SFDG’s website.  Maremont also created Twitter and Facebook accounts for herself, which she used for SFDG’s social media campaigns as well as for personal purposes. Often, Maremont would use her Twitter and Facebook accounts to post links to SFDG’s website and blog. At SFDG’s request, Maremont also created a Facebook page for the company, which Maremont accessed and administered through her own Facebook page.  Maremont kept all the log-in information for these social media accounts on a spreadsheet that she created on an SFDG-owned computer and saved on an SFDG-owned server.

Maremont was involved in a car accident that left her hospitalized.  While Maremont was on leave, employees at SFDG used the log-in information from her spreadsheet to access the social media accounts and continue SFDG’s social media campaigns.  SFDG was transparent about Maremont’s absence and even used Twitter to broadcast a blog entry explaining that a guest blogger would be filling in until her return.

Chagrined that SFDG was using her “personal” Twitter and Facebook accounts without her permission, Maremont filed suit against SFDG claiming violations of the Stored Communications Act (SCA).  The SCA is a federal law that prohibits unauthorized access to sites (like Facebook and Twitter) where electronic communications are stored.  SFDG argued that it had the right to access Maremont’s accounts and that it properly acquired and used the log-in information from Maremont’s spreadsheet.  However, the court found there were factual issues as to whether SFDG did, in fact, have sufficient authority to access the accounts and so ruled against SFDG on its motion for summary judgment.
Given the Maremont case and others like it, businesses should take affirmative steps to protect their rights with respect to business-related social media accounts.  Although companies with effective social media policies and proprietary information agreements with employees may still run into ownership issues around social media, they can likely be more “confident” of their ability to prevail should a dispute arise.