COMMENT: Your Twitter account may be owned by your company
**The recent US court case of [PhoneDog versus Noah Kravitz](http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/27/company-sues-ex-employee-twitter) has raised a simple question for business-owners around the world: what claim does a company have on its employees’ Twitter accounts? Is a Twitter account – and its followers – always the property of the person who set it up? Or should it be regarded as a contacts book, the intellectual property of the company [Rossa McMahon](http://aclatterofthelaw.com/about), a solicitor with expertise in intellectual property and technology at [McMahon Solicitors](http://pgmcmahon.com/Patrick_G._McMahon_Solicitors/Patrick_G._McMahon_Solicitors.html) in Newcastle West, considers the issue.**
Much like all issues raised online, this case is not quite as unique as might be thought. I expect that an Irish court would approach a Twitter account like it would other aspects of employment relationships. Employment policies and procedures will feature in a big way.
The account would likely be viewed as being similar to a list of contacts. While Twitter is unlike traditional corporate communications channels, an Irish court would reason by analogy to existing technology and business methods in order to apply existing law and precedents.
Intellectual property law is likely to feature in Twitter disputes, certainly from the employer's point of view. The Copyright & Related Rights Acts provide that works made "in the course of employment" are owned by the employer. The crucial question will therefore be whether or not the account was opened or operated in the course of employment.
This point would likely be fought in detail as, given the nature of Twitter, many tweets and interactions are of a personal or trivial nature and might not relate to the tweeter's employment. Questions that would be argued would include how many tweets were sent during work hours, was the account set up at work or from home. However, if you take the example of a radio or television personality, it could be argued that all those interactions are aimed directly or indirectly at increasing the personality's brand and therefore do relate to their employment. The [Kravitz case](http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/27/company-sues-ex-employee-twitter) also raises a trademark issue, in that Kravitz had the name of his employer included in his Twitter account name (@PhoneDog-Noah). Any trademark owner should be able to take action against the use of such a name.
By combining the copyright ownership of tweets and the trademark point, however, one might only get a court to deal with historical behaviour. This could mean that the employer owns the tweets until the employment relationship ends and the former employee can be ordered to change their user name.
It is not certain that a court would order the actual account to be handed over. This is where the employer would argue that the account is similar to a LinkedIn account or traditional contact book. The employee's traditional obligations toward his or her employer would also feature.
In relation to disclaimers, I don't think they have a significant effect and certainly not from a liability point of view. They can be useful for public relations, in that when an employee tweets something defamatory or impolitic, it can be disowned to some extent.
However, of more relevance will be the actual nature of the relationship: was it genuinely a personal account or was it one effectively sanctioned by the employer and from which the employer might have benefitted? Just slapping a disclaimer on something won't convince a court otherwise. (I have a brief disclaimer on my own account but it's for clarity rather than liability purposes.)
One thing jumps out here: social media policy. Organisations using the internet and social media to communicate with customers and other industry individuals need to have a policy in place which is incorporated into the terms and conditions of employment of all employees. It should govern the setting up of accounts, control of passwords, naming policy, tweet policy and guidelines on usage.
For such accounts to be successful, they cannot over-govern tweets as this will probably mean that no-one will want to follow the accounts. However, by setting the ownership and control framework, they would be of great assistance when disputes break out.
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