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What’s in a social_media_user_name?

Who owns a user name? As more and more businesses begin utilizing social media there will inevitably be an increase in law suits when disputes arise from their use. Two recent cases, involving both Twitter and Facebook, have highlighted the importance of usernames.

What is a username and why is it important? A username is a person or a company’s online address, location, nick-name, or other personal digital designation. This can be a real name, or a pseudonym, for example: CuteKittens94. Username’s have become quite important because they are generally the way people are found online, and as more people use the internet common names are quickly being taken.

Case one: Who’s follower is it anyway?

A person is hired as a social media manager. They sign up for Twitter with the name “CompanyX_PersonY”. The employee, as part of their job, gains followers for the company and promotes the company. The employee quits and changes the user name to “PersonY,” removing any mention of Company X. The result was that the employee left the company with the nearly 17,000 followers they had obtained. The employer sued to get “their” followers back.

While the above case hasn’t gone to trial, the result is fairly certain. First, Twitter, above all else, owns the rights to usernames. Their terms and conditions state that a user merely licenses the ability to use the software. Twitter (and every other major service) retains the right to do whatever they want with their services. However, the above case doesn’t really have anything to do with Twitter, it is simply between an ex-employee and the employer. So who wins? The Employer, because of the “Work for Hire” doctrine. Simply put, this means that if you are hired to do a certain job (tweet), and you do that job, receive pay, and do it on company equipment, the employer owns whatever work you do.

Case two: “I was there first!”

“Company X” created a Facebook business page. They obtain the vanity URL, www.facebook.com/CompanyX. Due to an “administrative error” another company with a very similar name “Company X & Co.” is granted the user name. (Disclaimer: their page wasn’t deleted, but it could only be accessed if someone typed in their direct address, a bunch of numbers, or through a Google search.) Company X sues Facebook for the rights to their vanity URL. This is another important issue for two reasons. First, once you have created an online presence, you and your customers rely on it being there. Second, changing these names can be costly, time consuming, and an overall headache.

As seen above, Facebook has the final say as to who gets the URL. This however, raises serious issues for companies that have a large online presence and have spent a lot of money developing their web footprint. In this case, Facebook asked the two companies to work it out. The company that was there first got their page back.

It’s also hard to argue that when a company provides users with a free service, that users are entitled to certain rights of that service. But what would happen if Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, or any other free service were to simply stop? Or, if they were to delete an account, just to give the username to someone else?

In the end, all of these services are businesses. That means all of them need to make money, or find a way to create value from the services they provide. This may be through directed advertising, based on what they know about their individual users. This may be by republishing your content. Regardless, there are certain ways to protect your user name, company name, logo and content, even if these websites don’t. For a summary of ways to protect your name via trademarks and copyright, see here and here.

While you may not own your social media user name, you can own a company name, logo, trademark, and any material posted via these services. Protect yourself first, publish second!

Written by William G Wysong, Legal Intern to Deborah Sweeney, CEO MyCorporation.com

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