Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Ruling highlights need for clear policy on social media account ownership, says expert

Out-Law News | 11 Jul 2013 | 12:57 pm | 2 min. read

A ruling by the High Court has highlighted the need for businesses to operate a "clear policy" on ownership of social media accounts used by staff for business purposes, an expert has said.

The Court ruled to issue an injunction against three former employees of publishing company Whitmar Publications Ltd (Whitmar) as well as a company, Earth Island, the three individuals set up and left Whitmar for. The injunction requires David Gamage, Susan Wright, Steven Crawley and Earth Island to give Whitmar "exclusive access, management and control” of four LinkedIn groups, according to a report by Gaby Hardwicke solicitors. is a business networking website.

Whitmar has alleged that Gamage, Wright and Crawley took steps to set up Earth Island as a rival business to Whitmar during their time in employment with it and that they have misused confidential information belonging to Whitmar, infringed the company's database rights and breached duties they were obliged to adhere to under the terms of their Whitmar employment, according to a copy of a judgment in the case published by legal news service Lexis Nexis. (subscription access only)

Those issues are to be determined at a full trial after judge Peter Leaver QC determined that Whitmar "had a very good chance of succeeding at trial" based on the evidence before him.

However, the judge ordered an interim injunction should apply against Gamage, Wright, Crawley and Earth Island in relation to the ownership and operation of the LinkedIn groups that Wright had had responsibility for operating in her role with Whitmar.

According to the High Court judgment, Wright had refused to provide Whitmar with all the "access details" for the LinkedIn groups and has claimed that the groups were "personal to her and just a hobby". However, Whitmar challenged that claim on the basis that Wright "does not have a computer at home". Whitmar claimed that Wright and the two other former staff members were "using the Linked-In groups as their own and for the benefit of Earth Island".

The High Court judge said, though, that Wright had been "responsible for dealing with the LinkedIn groups as part of her employment duties at Whitmar" and that they had been "operated for Whitmar's benefit and promoted its business" using the company's computers.

He said that information contained within the LinkedIn groups "appear to have been used as the source" of the e-mail addresses used when an Earth Island press release was distributed three days after Wright's period of employment with Whitmar had ended.

Technology law expert Luke Scanlon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the case highlights the need for businesses to be clear with staff about ownership rights around social media accounts.

"The decision touches on the question of who 'owns' a LinkedIn group," Scanlon said. "The court has indicated that the key factors that likely will be determinative are the extent to which the group is created for the benefit of the employer and promotes the employer's business. What happens when the evidence indicates that an employee is using a LinkedIn group or a twitter account for dual purposes - to promote the business but also himself or herself?"

"The decision reached here is a good reminder that businesses should have clear policy arrangements in place with their employees in relation to the issue of termination of employment and access to and use of information gained through social media platforms before using them as commercially valuable tools," he added.