A series of recent court rulings have begun to examine whether online contacts and profiles used for business purposes should be classified as trade secrets. Increasingly, online networking and media presence are critical assets for businesses. Some argue that while an employee’s LinkedIn and Twitter profiles bear the individual’s name, the contacts and network established in the course of employment should ultimately belong to the company.
In a recent case where an employee left his company to start a competing venture, the US Central District Court of California ruled that the employee’s LinkedIn contacts could be considered a trade secret. Another California court ruled in 2011 against an employee who continued using the Twitter account he’d used for his employer even after leaving the company. There is some division on the issue between states—in 2011 a Pennsylvania court found that LinkedIn contacts were not trade secrets.
The current reality is that legal understanding and precedent have not caught up with new business models that rely on online outreach as a critical commercial tool. Every major brand and corporation has a significant online presence used to build visibility, establish contacts, and ultimately drive business.
While there is a lack of legal clarity around the question, employers should seek to establish clear confidentiality agreements with employees that clarify ownership over social media accounts and profiles. Employees should also seek a clear understanding of their ownership of online resources, and if necessary establish separate personal and professional accounts.
Photo Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.