Another legal quandary: Intellectual property and your social media contacts

Can a company keep the social networking contacts you made during your tenure?

Add this question to the list of legal issues surrounding social networking: Can an employer demand you hand over your social media contacts when you leave the company?

This is a question that faced recruiter Jackie Juge recently. When Juge's five-year contract for Microsoft ended, the company asked her to hand over her LinkedIn contacts.  Although the contacts were developed over the course of her working with MS and Google, the email she used was her private email. Juge refused to turn over the contacts. Eventually, Microsoft dropped the matter.

While many companies are fairly clear in employee contracts as to what rights they maintain in regard to Intellectual property, not many of them consider whether social networking contacts are considered intellectual property. Protection standards and traditional non-compete agreements don't fully address questions about ownership of social media content and contacts.

Right now, the controversy surrounding ownership of social media is centered on recruiters since they use social networking tools so much as they look for talent. But as more companies embrace social media as a way to push their brands, this issue will become more prevalent. Gartner Inc., for example, predicts that by 2014 social networking tools will replace email as the main means of communication for 20 percent of business users.

Another case involving social networking:  Technology staffing and services firm TEKsystems Inc., sued former recruiter Brelyn Hammernick for violating an employment agreement by connecting with 16 TEKsystems employees on LinkedIn. One aspect that will be decided by the case is whether "connecting" with those contacts violated an agreement barring solicitation.

Companies need to start including social media in their employment agreements. Monster, for example, already does this. Employees know going in that any fans/followers they establish on behalf of their official social media role at Monster stay with Monster when they leave.

What do you think the implications are of this new focus on social networking as intellectual property?

By Toni Bowers

Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.