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Who owns your Twitter account?

So here is a legal conundrum.  You’ve been active on a number of social media websites, such as Twitter, FaceBook or Digg.  You have amassed a number of friends and followers and built a certain amount of credibility.  You leave your job – take a better position elsewhere, move to another city, get laid off or fired – doesn’t matter the reason.

Who owns your Twitter account?  Your FaceBook account?  Etc.

I thought it was a very straightforward question, too.  If it’s in your name, it’s yours.  If it’s in the company’s name, it’s the company’s.  Period. Or maybe not period.  Maybe question mark.

A legal viewpoint has been sought and diligently reported on by Glenn Gabe.  The comments, which are not to be taken as legal advice, came from lawyer Mike Pisauro.  He covered five scenarios, which I’ll list here but you can go to the original post to read the details.

  1. Grandfathered Twitter Accounts
  2. Twitter Account Already Established, But Employee Has Agreed That Twitter Will Be Part Of His Job
  3. Twitter Accounts Set Up While An Employee Is Working At A Company
  4. The Employee Is The Official Social Media Marketer For The Company
  5. The Employee Is The Official Social Media Marketer And Has Set Up The Account As Part Of The Marketing Effort

For what it’s worth, I think a key point is missing.  In whose name is the account set up?  Let’s take a scenario where Mary Wilkins is hired to do communications for ACME . and she is told that she needs to tweet nice things about the company, but to set it up in her name, not in the company’s name.  There are a number of reasons ACME might want her to tweet in her own name, rather than the company’s.

  • They might be trying to avoid liability for what an employee might publicly say.
  • They might want her comments to have an air of objectivity.
  • They might not want to be held to anything she tweets.
  • Thjey might want people to connect with a real human being, not an impersonal company.

All these reasons have one common element – they all imply that the company does not want to be associated with the account.  They all are purposeful actions to refuse ownership of the account.  I have a very hard time believing, legal genius that I am not, that any court would be able to ignore that fact if the real owner — the employee – articulated that argument well.

On the other hand, if the account was set up in the company’s name by the employee, overtly being the ACME account, I cannot imagine for a moment that a court would award ownership of the account to the employee.

The only place I see as being murky is if the account is personal in the person’s name and that person is the official spokesperson for the company and promoted as such.  For isnstance if a Twitter account is @MaryWilkins and the ACME logo is used as the background.  Situations 4 and 5 above could fall into that class.

Of course, my legal opinion and a dime will buy you a drink at the public water fountain, so if you are a) hiring someone who will be running social media accounts on your behalf or b) being hired by a company wanting you to run its social media accounts, get the prenuptials down in writing ahead of time.

So now, the real burning legal issue:

Q: Who owns the Twitter account?
A: Twitter.

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67 Responses to “Who owns your Twitter account?”

  1. johnhaydon (1 comments) Says:

    If Twitter legally owns my Twitter account, I'm not that concerned. I'm just glad I was able to get @johnhaydon before someone else did.

    @therealjohnhaydon just doesn't have the same ring that @therealshaq does.

  2. Mike Pisauro (1 comments) Says:

    David,
    I think who set up the account may be an important factor, but I do not think that it would be the most controlling factor. Consider the scenario of @MaryWilkins set up the twitter account while in the employ of the company, using company resources to set it up (computer and internet access), all of the tweets occurred on company time and were regarding the company. I think that the company may have an argument that they own the account regardless of whose name is on the account. Whether the argument wins are the end of the day, I do not know.
    The best way as you mention and the original article mentions is to deal with the issue up front upon hiring of the employee.

  3. Tim Cohn (2 comments) Says:

    Yeah – and because Twitter owns all Twitter accounts don't they also "own" all the content you have posted on it?

  4. David Leonhardt (143 comments) Says:

    I know that is where it gets murky. I can't help but thinking that if an employee was asked to supply their own computer or Internet access or phone line (as work-from-home employees sometimes are), that the employee owns those items they are to provide. I think it is a BIG, BIG arguement if a company specifies the account is to be in the employees name. Of course, I can make such statements, not being a lawyer, but I am sure in due course we shall see for ourselves if they actually fly.

  5. David Leonhardt (143 comments) Says:

    Good point. They can shut down the site tomorrow and I doubt there is anything anyone could do about the lost content. Ownership and copyright are two different matters, and I won't wade into that soup.

  6. Fred McClimans (1 comments) Says:

    It would seem logical that they own the tweets (provided you are not tweeting something that has previously been established elsewhere), but not anything that you have linked to through it.

  7. Hjörtur Smárason (1 comments) Says:

    Another related question I find interesting is if someone registered my trademark. Who owns that account? Twitter, the person who registered it or the one who owns the trademark?

  8. David Leonhardt (143 comments) Says:

    That is where the lawyers will make their money. It will be the whole issue of trademarks in PPC ads all over again.

  9. @steveplunkett (1 comments) Says:

    Hjortur
    Depends on the jurisdiction of twitter's servers… if it's in the US then US law applies even if the person has a legal claim outside of the us.

    read DMCA for mor einfo.

  10. Lisa Moody (1 comments) Says:

    If they use the company e-mail address to set it up then the company owns it, if they use their personal e-mail to set up an account then they own it. That’s how we do it at our company. If it is tied to the company e-mail address then everything must be professional and represent the company. If it’s their own personal account then it’s theirs to do with as they please. No company business should be discussed on their personal account.

    I have a personal Facebook and a professional Facebook and a personal Twitter and a professional Twitter myself. I encourage all employees to do the same, but make it clear that the company owns the professional accounts, right in the policy manual.

  11. Brett Yount (1 comments) Says:

    Interesting article. I'm in this situation myself. I set up my account on my own time at home shortly after taking a job at bing.com (ibing. Ubing?). At first, my job was to moderate the webmaster forums. I've now taken on a larger role in community engagement which includes twitter. I'm not too concerned though. I really enjoy my new role. If any of you need help with optimizing for bing.com just bing me on our webmaster forums!

  12. RayAllen (1 comments) Says:

    Nice article! I had no idea there were so many legal ramifications in your Twitter, Facebook account! But I don't think that really can be policed by employers……why would they want to pursue that? I think lawsuits in this venue fall into the "frivolous" file. Just my humble opinion of course.

  13. james touo (1 comments) Says:

    I wanna ask all you people whether it is applicable for all networking sites or not?

  14. David Leonhardt (143 comments) Says:

    Great question. I have to assume that it does, but I'm sure that there is plenty of room for debate, given that different websites are used for quite different forms of networking and sharing. Consider the differences between FaceBook, YouTube, Squidoo and Digg, for example.

  15. Mike_Shields (1 comments) Says:

    Excellent analysis. Your followup post can be, ”Who owns your tweets?“

  16. wilson (40 comments) Says:

    Kudos, David! You've stated the unveil truth of Twitter! Yeah, as Facebook did, Twitter is the proud owner of the Twitter. We're only the users of the Twitter and we've no any authority to claim the rights on it!

  17. Leon Poole (1 comments) Says:

    Great post!

    Often the legalities of account ownership are overlooked because it's so easy to just create an account and start tweeting (when at that point there is no value. But of course down the track it gains value and ownership questions that should have been discussed at the beginning were not.

    It would also be interesting to know the ownership legalities if you changed your twitter account name from your company name to your own, as well as your username (reflected in your twitter address ie twitter.com/username) and vice versa.

  18. Tim Cohn (2 comments) Says:

    I asked the question "Who owns your Tweets? You or Twitter?" …on my blog at the time I posted the comment above.

    http://searchmarketingcommunications.com/2009/05/

  19. Tom Jenkins (1 comments) Says:

    Very good article. Most people realize it but they can take an account and give it to someone else. I know people who have had it done.

  20. Rob Andrews (1 comments) Says:

    Mmmm or the ownership of the accounts, tweets, etc. will pass to whoever Twitter eventually sell out too…

  21. andie (1 comments) Says:

    I am so sick of hearing about twitter!

  22. Sheila Hyatt (1 comments) Says:

    You raise some interesting points in this article.In theory I am perfectly ok with twitter owning my account. Because they provide the medium for it to work. But I am not ok with twitter owning my content wich was produced through my efforts. Then the question becomes what is the difference between the two. Or what does the first imply ?

  23. Jenny (1 comments) Says:

    thats kinda scary. makes me wanna cancel accounts at all the sites im at. LOL

  24. shelly (1 comments) Says:

    i am so sick of twitter!!!!!

  25. LandCentral (1 comments) Says:

    Great post David. I have wondered this question for quite some time as I have personal accounts that have been built up through work and have run into issues. Sounds very much like a lot of it is still up in the wind.

  26. DominicT (1 comments) Says:

    Well if social media sites started owning our accounts and our work, may be it is time for us to seek other alternatives.

  27. Ber2 (1 comments) Says:

    Great Post … i never think about the law issue when signing up to twitter. It makes me want to cancel my account on twitter. Thanks for the sharing.

  28. Bountiful, Utah (1 comments) Says:

    This is an interesting problem with a lot of online problems. My friend at the University of Utah wrote his thesis about online gaming in World of Warcraft; it seems trivial, but some of the accounts in the game are worth tens of thousands of dollars and have hundreds of hours invested in them – and yet are owned by Blizzard, which can do whatever it wants to them. Certainly a legal problem that will become more amplified in the years to come.

  29. Ryan v. (2 comments) Says:

    Definitely a fine line here. I think it comes down to whos name the account is registered under. Your name, your account.

  30. Hicham (2 comments) Says:

    I agree with you that the owner is twitter and your post is highlighting on important topic. I've something to add that mabe interesting to your insightful article and rise more questions: Twitter start to 'verify' the identity of the person who tweet, they started with celebrities and public figures worldwide such as Oprah (http://twitter.com/Oprah) and might go for normal users like me.

    What do you think? Maybe this is another post!

  31. Ubaldo (1 comments) Says:

    Very good article. Often the legalities of account ownership are overlooked …

  32. Cornelia Cunningham (4 comments) Says:

    This is the same problem that we have with FB right? Wasn't it stated in their policy that all pics you upload in your account becomes their property? This is why we must be very careful with what we post and how we post stuffs over the Internet.

  33. Boil Treatment (1 comments) Says:

    Yeah – and because Twitter owns all Twitter accounts don't they also "own" all the content you have posted on it?

  34. Katharina (1 comments) Says:

    I suppose that with every effort done, the person who made the account is not the real owner but it is really twitter. That made me think and re-think!

  35. Randy Fisher (1 comments) Says:

    Great post David, I have owne a twitter account and same problem have been faced. Thanks

  36. PRINCE2 training (2 comments) Says:

    Yeah, I wouldn't care for now who actually legally owns my twitter account.

  37. wedding (1 comments) Says:

    Interesting article, fall me into deep thinking. Well, is there a need for this to be legally acquainted? As for my opinion, anyone can create a twitter account and use the identity of a particular person or company then tweet things to public. Can they possibly trace the bogus account if used improperly?

    The accessibility of the internet makes it difficult for authorities to make some laws. I think they have to figure out first how to trace the root. IP is one I think but not that reliable.

    Thanks anyway for the article. Good catch!

  38. wedding favors girl (1 comments) Says:

    Wow, this is an eye-opener. We never really think through the idea of ownership when dealing with social media accounts. I remember when there was hoopla concerning Facebook's rights to own your photos and everybody made a fuss about it; however, Facebook does own the domain. Twitter is the same. I guess we have to be careful…food for thought indeed!

  39. Leadership (3 comments) Says:

    Hahahaha, I loved the ending. Its true – I wonder what these people really are thinking of when they talk about 'ownership' of twitter accounts. Control? Control of an account under modern international accounting standards is tantamount to owning an asset. So certainly worth debating over.

  40. James Parker (1 comments) Says:

    Hi,

    No doubt it is an excellent post highlighting an important issues. Yes, twitter owns all of the accounts but do the twitter owns the content which is passed by it??

    @Hicham, yes it observed this new change and it is really useful; at least to protect the identities!

    - J.

  41. Alieu Colley (1 comments) Says:

    Yeah Twitter owns all Twitter accounts don't they also "own" all the content you have posted on it?

  42. laval (1 comments) Says:

    The answer is obviously twitter. But for argument's sake, unless the employee and the employer have contractual agreements e.g tweeting as part of job scope and written in the letter of offer, there is very little case a company can do. Afterall, the individual holds the username and password. Will a court of law bother to take time to issue a warrant for it?

  43. MRSA Treatment (2 comments) Says:

    Excellent points on having a contract written if you hire out social media projects. I think this is similar to Blogger if you use them. If you search, you'll find that Blogger owns all of the content on your blog. Another great reason to use WordPress.

  44. Free Resveratrol (1 comments) Says:

    Sorry for the duplicate post. I accidentally hit enter before I was finished entering my info… As online technology develops we will continue to see these legal questions come up. Twitter does own your account, but only in the same sense that a website host owns your website. It's very limited. I've always wondered if a twitter account or a website is something that one can leave to another person in a will.

  45. Richard Ramsey (1 comments) Says:

    An excellent topic. social media sites started owning our accounts and our work, may be it is time for us to seek other alternatives.

  46. horse saddles (2 comments) Says:

    I agree with you here.

    " * They might be trying to avoid liability for what an employee might publicly say.
    * They might want her comments to have an air of objectivity.
    * They might not want to be held to anything she tweets.
    * Thjey might want people to connect with a real human being, not an impersonal company."

    All I can say is. If I am the one who created the account and its under my name. It is mine.

  47. Ruri (6 comments) Says:

    I agree for what Lisa comment above. If the employee created the personal account. This account of course belong to employee. But if employee open the account on behalf of company, this account should belong to company.

    Sometimes employee already have twitter account before employ in one company. Company can use his/her credibility for company benefit.

  48. bouncy castle (1 comments) Says:

    excellent and worth noting the points in your blog and fellow readers' posts. I have just started to use Twitter as I was told by fellow entrepreneurs it was a good way to get new income and people interested in my site. Interesting to know that the content on my account may not even belong to me! Interesting story.

  49. Scott Pruitt (1 comments) Says:

    Its simple if the company pays you to create a Twitter account and use their facilities then its theirs.

  50. Sarah_Lam (1 comments) Says:

    I am not surprised, after all Twitter makes Twitter. However, like Hicham has mentioned that Twitter is starting to verify the celebs, maybe there is something else cooking in the pot.

  51. Ecommerce Design (1 comments) Says:

    No matter how you slice it, Twitter owns all Twitter accounts at the end of the day.

  52. Ventrilo Servers (1 comments) Says:

    Well, I think even if twitter owns it, with thousands of users… they would not find anything to do with it. Even if they own your tweets, they wont anything that is linked outside twitter like your blog posts.

  53. Coffee maker (1 comments) Says:

    In the end I think Twitter owns them but will twitter try to police them. For example I take IBM and the company IBM wants it! Does Twitter take action?

    Should be interesting….

  54. VHwriter (1 comments) Says:

    Interesting post. In my opinion, if a company wants an employee to post tweets about company news, announcements, etc., they should register their company name. Registering in an employee's name might be a mistake. For one, the employee might just use the account for his/her own personal purpose later–which I don't think is necessarily the fault of the employee. After all, the account is under his/her name. The company may have a claim, but still, it's the employee's name being used.

  55. Bob Raven (1 comments) Says:

    I think if you built the list of friends on your companies hours and you were paid for those hours then the account should be owned by the company.

  56. Saddles For Sale (2 comments) Says:

    Twitter is over rated it only works well for establihed brands and the darker industries

  57. Phillip Ed (1 comments) Says:

    Interesting! I never thought about such legal issues in tweeting

  58. Tim (3 comments) Says:

    Unregulated always goes regulated some day and if Twitter can make a dollar out of regulating the names they should and will do it. The tipping point will come when we pay and bid for the names we want and expect to pay. Just wait you will see

  59. bestregistrycleaner (2 comments) Says:

    I think the primary factor is the one who set up the account. And as others says, if someone uses its personal e-mail to set up an account then they absolutely owns it. Its up to them what they want to do on the account since they own it.

  60. Tim (3 comments) Says:

    I don't think that really can be policed by employers……why would they want to pursue that? I think lawsuits in this venue fall into the "frivolous" file.

  61. Thin Thighs (1 comments) Says:

    This is the real question now, as people are actually selling their twitter handle. Like the one @drew, where supposedly Drew Carey himself is bidding for… a whopping $100,000.

  62. Tiens shop (2 comments) Says:

    This is definately an interesting post.I think the person who created the Twitter site is the owner of it.so for me the owner is twitter.

  63. Posicionamiento web (2 comments) Says:

    Wow lot’s of very interesting different Twitter ownership scenarios here. I’m so glad I work for myself and don’t have to worry about my company trying to claim ownership of my Twitter account. he he. ;-)

  64. saddle for sale (1 comments) Says:

    In regards to the matter of a company employing someone and getting them to start one of these social media accounts I believe that the account would belong to the company – however only if that was apart of the job description and therefore they were being paid to do so.

  65. Steve Lareney (1 comments) Says:

    I think the account should belong to the person that created it. Its kind of like a condo – you own the unit but you sorta don't own the common space but you have a voice. I love facebook and playing games on facebook. Have you seen this website about mafia wars strategy, it is where I got some of my strategy tips for the game.

  66. Gary (1 comments) Says:

    Maybe its best to have 2 twitter accounts, on ein business name and ones own personal twitter acount, would this solve it!!

  67. Sarah (1 comments) Says:

    Another question is how many people have sold their twitter accounts to someone else because they were tired tweeting… You could be getting tweets from a stranger…

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