December 14, 2011; Source: Mondaq (Proskauer’s Technology, Media & Communications Group) | This article contains some excellent general points about who owns the social media accounts of employees and contractors. We recommend you read the whole article for the complexities and a few instructive cases.

Consider the following. The first case presented has to do with a Twitter account that incorporated both the employer and employee’s name. Over time, the account accumulated 17,000 followers, and the marketing effort was very successful, but when the employee left he changed his handle to exclude the employer’s name, and then used it on behalf of a competitor.

In another high-profile case, the nonprofit Tea Party Patriots became embroiled in costly litigation when Amy Kremer, one of the founders of the organization, registered domain names in 2009 and set up a website and social network accounts for the group. Kremer eventually developed conflicts with the rest of the board and was dropped from it, but she retained control over some of the accounts and an online e-mail list. The group filed suit against Kremer in Georgia state court and ultimately prevailed, but only after a weeklong jury trial over the ownership of the accounts. No reported opinion was issued in this case.

The lessons? From the article:

“(E)mployers should consider explicitly nailing down that issue even further in their proprietary rights agreements with employees, as well as their Internet use and similar policies that cover the use of company online accounts on behalf of the employer, with an express provision covering the ownership of such accounts.

Employers should also consider a practical protocol covering online accounts that requires registration in the name of the employer where possible, or inclusion of the employer’s identifying information in the account registration. Duplicate recordation of account registration and access information in a place within the company’s control should also be required. Quick action by the employer to change account access information when an employee leaves may avoid the cost and delay involved in litigation to recover account control.

It is also important to note that this issue arises not only in the case of employees, but also in the context of agents and contractors as well. For example, often an advertising agency will register a Twitter account for a client, or a developer or designer will register a domain name, create a blog or other online presence. It is essential that the agreements with such agents expressly address ownership of the credentials to such accounts, and that the agent is expressly required to provide those credentials to its principal.”