Friday, May 29, 2009

Who owns what in Social Media?

September 11th 2008 - It's not great art unles...Image by Stephen Poff via Flickr

Intellectual property takes new forms

An interesting question has been developing lately: If you work
with social media tools in a corporate setting, who actually owns the intellectual capital that is developed?

Neal Schaffer does a nice job of looking at portions of this question in a post from his blog LinkedIn Expert Advice & Insight through Your Questions - A LinkedIn Blog that Goes Beyond the "Official" Explanations.

Imagine that you began a job as a recruiter. Part of your job is, obviously, building out a network. After being hired you learn about LinkedIn and sign up using your personal name. You start inviting your network as well as new contacts to connect with you on LinkedIn. In order to better facilitate your sourcing activities on LinkedIn, your company starts reimbursing you for a paid account.

I think the above is a very likely scenario for a lot of people, not only in the recruiting industry, but in any outward-facing role (such as sales and marketing) as part of a larger organization. And if you don’t feel the problem brewing, then maybe you need to make sure that you don’t end up like my networking contact did.

This person decides to leave the company. The company demands ownership of his LinkedIn Profile. That’s right, they are not asking for the database of his LinkedIn connections, which is fair game, but for his username and password. The company wants ownership of this employee’s social networking account in its entirety.

Ruh Roh! Suddenly, all those contacts you developed through work, the data base you built, your sweat and blood - have to be turned over to the company you are leaving? This might create a few WTF moments.

Of course, many companies will have policies in place. Perhaps you will even be required to sign an agreement dealing with this as part of the terms and conditions of your employment offer. But I bet lots of companies haven't even thought about this yet. And if you are like many HR people who have yet to really embrace social media, you are going to be fumbling for the number of an attorney to get you an answer quick.

Schaffer's post offers some relevant advice for a non-legal solution:

I always tell my networking contacts to make sure that they use their personal email address, not company one, as their primary LinkedIn contact information. Should you have to suddenly depart your company, you want to make sure that your account is completely portable. But this employee did just that, and is still facing a problem.

Regardless, if you are potentially in a similar situation, save yourself future headaches and create your own personal LinkedIn account, making sure that you separate your private network of connections from your employer’s. You never know when you may be fighting this same battle when you leave your next job.
Companies are choosing different models for the way they are creating a social media presence.
Here's a quick look at three examples seen on Twitter.

Corporate branded accounts: Companies like @Home Depot, @Whole Foods or @Starbucks who have developed a presence on twitter have simply created accounts with their brand name, and assign employees to respond to tweets as part of their jobs. The brand is the public face, and while it is possible for the employees behind the corporate logo to develop a certain following, there is a fairly clear line of separation between brand and person.

Corporate celebrity accounts: The best known example of this is probably @Zappos. This account belongs to Tony Hsieh, the well known CEO of Zappos. Hsieh spends a great deal of time building his company brand by speaking at Social Media events. He is also indistinguishabele from the @Zappos account since he literally is that account. But what happens if and when he ever leaves Zappos? He may have a contractual arrangement in place. I have no idea. I dod know that the next CEO of Zappo's has big shoes to fill as @Zappos - a daunting challenge. And if ever does leave - he has a great personal following that he will have get to follow him to some other account. If he is allowed to do so, that is. Other examples of these types of accounts include @BestBuyCMO and @SHRMcoo.

Employee affiliate accounts: Zappos also has allowed employees to create accounts for themselves linked to the Zappos brand. If I worked there, theoretically I could have an account like @MikeV_Zappos, or @coolHRdude_Zappos. I wonder what happens to these accounts if and when an employee leaves Zappos?

Co-branded accounts: Probably the more conservative of the Zappos employee affiliated account are the accounts you see at companies like Dell and Comcast. Here employees create accounts like @RichardatDell which essentially become personalized customer service accounts for the company.

For more info: take a look at posts from Duct Tape Marketing on social media non-competes, Harte of Marketing on who might actually own your twitter and facebook connections, and Search Engine Journal for some non-official advice from an attorney. All make for interesting reading.

Do you know who owns YOUR social media intellectual property? This yet another example of the law (and company policy) not keeping up with the speed of the technology.

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  1. Hey Blogger - what is up with my comments?

  2. This was a interesting post, Michael and it raises some pretty interesting issues. My gut feeling is that 'company' accounts (and their associated connection and followers) have to stay with the company. Even if there was a single person behind the account, and there was not an explicit agreement in place, I can't really see a situation where a person could 'transfer' a popular company account over to a 'personal' account, and have that work out successfully. Perhaps a 'co-branded' account 'TomAtDell' might be successfully be converted into simply 'Tom', but I would be many of the followers were there for the connection to 'Dell', not to 'Tom'. But a totally personal account? I have to believe that the account and the contacts belong to the person. How is it any different to an old days rolodex, or giant binder full of business cards that people would amass as they performed their jobs and networked with peers and customers. To me, the Twitter followers or LinkedIn contacts a person generates as part of their job duties are really the same thing. A person can't realistically be expected to leave a company, and hand over all the personal contacts they ever made.

  3. Steve - I think your comments are pretty accurate. I think @Zappos is probably the most glaring example of where a little brand equity confusion could erupt.

    The other scenario is if some company person become an internet celebrity and goes off on their own. Who owns the media credibility? Granted, it is unlikely, but it is interesting to think about, and I am sure there are numerous other examples I haven't even considered. Here's a personal one: I bookmark a lot of stuff for work on my delicious account, probably over 1000 items. If I depart my employer, who owns this product? My solution would be to share, since it isn't significant proprietary stuff, but that may not be true for say, a financial analyst doing the same thing.

  4. yes i must agree that it was really an interesting post


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