Do You Own Your Company’s Internet Presence? (The Answer May Surprise You.)
Websites can make or break a business, and catchy social media posts are becoming part of a company’s brand. Consumers look to websites and social media for company information, making the management of these digital assets crucial to a business’s success. While most companies put much effort into creating and sustaining their online presence, many do not implement policies to ensure that they own those digital assets.
Domain names are not traditional items of property but should be safeguarded nonetheless as vital company assets. A domain name signifies the primary identifier and addresses of a business’s website. To “own” a domain name, you must purchase it from a domain name registrar like GoDaddy. Purchasing a domain name registers it in the database of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This database keeps track of all registered domain names purchased from authorized registrars.
In many cases, companies will have employees, contractors, or IT consultants register the domain name. Often, that person will enter his or her own name as the registrant. However, this results in that person, rather than the company, being listed as the owner of the domain. If the employee or contractor ever terminates their relationship with the company, this can lead to arguments over the ownership of the domain name and the website. There have been several cases where unhappy employees attempted to use their control of a domain as leverage against a former employer.
Social Media Accounts
What happens when a company has a well-established social media account run by an employee? Who owns the account? Who owns its content? If the employee leaves the company, what rights does the company have over the information for the account? It is important that business owners know the answers to these questions before issues arise. Leading cases make it clear that the answer to these questions depend on the facts of the case and a variety of identifiable factors.
In one case in California, an employee had managed a Twitter account used to promote its employer’s services. Upon termination, the employee refused to turn over the login information for the account or remove the company name from the account. The company sued the employee for misappropriation of trade secrets. The case eventually settled, with the employee allowed to keep all rights over the social media account and its followers.
In another case, a company hired an employee to develop websites and social media accounts to promote the company’s products. The employee signed an agreement stipulating that they would return all confidential information to the employer if employment was ever terminated. Upon termination, the employee refused to turn over the login information for the accounts. The court held that the employee was required to turn over the login information.
Protecting Digital Assets
Disputes over digital assets can be costly and time-consuming. The cases discussed above demonstrate that the best course of action is to prevent these types of issues from arising in the first place. This can be done with a well-drafted agreement. Many business owners have employees and contractors sign agreements ensuring that intellectual property created by the employee or contractor will be owned by the business. In the modern age of the internet, these agreements should be updated to include provisions making clear that digital assets such as domain names and social media accounts, along with their contents, are also owned by the business.