Can a Departing Employee Take Her Twitter Account With Her?

CNN anchor Rich Sanchez was recently fired for some comments he made.  Marshall Kirkpatrick (at ReadWriteWeb) asks the question of what happens to his Twitter account:  "CNN's Social Media Pioneer Gets Fired:  What Happens to Rick Sanchez on Twitter?"  An employee's Twitter account may or may not be worth much, depending on who you ask, but Sanchez's departure presents an interesting set of questions. 

As highlighted by Kirkpatrick: 
Does Sanchez own his Twitter account or does CNN? Ought he be required to remove the reference to CNN from his name? Should he do so before or after making some public statement about being fired?
Good questions. My off-the-cuff two cents:

Most employment agreements have clauses which assign intellectual property that is generated or created by the employee (during the term) to the employer. Copyrighted materials, patents (etc.) generally fit the bill, but someone's Twitter followers or Twitter handle don't obviously fall into these ca
tegories.  (The Tweets themselves are probably partially owned by CNN, although this could be complicated by the fact that Sanchez may have mixed in 'personal' tweets and 'professional' tweets, and probably did at least some of the tweeting on his own time.  Nevertheless, this is likely the least valuable part of his Twitter account so this is less interesting of a question.)

Sanchez would argue (using an off-line analogy) that if he built up a fan-base as a result of his popularity, he's not required to turn over his "fans" to his employer. CNN would argue that he gained these followers by exploiting the CNN brand and by using company resources. Including CNN in the Twitter handle (and promotion that the account may have received through CNN or related to CNN) are things that complicate the issue and potentially weigh in CNN's favor.  Who knows, CNN may have paid to promote Sanchez's Twitter account?  It's tough to come up with a good analogy, but Sanchez's position sounds like the better of the two to me.

With respect to the issue of whether he would have to remove the CNN from his Twitter handle. I think he'd have a tough time arguing that he should be able to leave it as is, and as a practical matter, he probably does not want to anyway.  That said, I'm not sure what cause of action CNN would assert.  Dilution?  Tarnishment?  Unfair competition?  (As a sidenote, here's a post that talks about what happens when you change your Twitter name:  "How To Change Your Twitter Name Without Losing Followers."  Although I've been often advised to change and shorten my Twitter handle (@VBalasubramani) I have no plans for doing so - unfortunately, I can't personally attest to the accuracy of the post.)

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The fact that there are some gray areas around these issues make these prime candidates for issues that should be addressed by contract terms.  I'm not a big fan of going overboard on corporate social media policies, but this is one instance where a policy would come in handy for CNN. If they had built in contractual protection, it could provide that upon termination: (1) Sanchez would stop using the account immediately; (2) CNN would have access to Sanchez's password at all times; (3) Sanchez would not post any public statements without CNN's approval; and (4) Sanchez would turn over the account to CNN.  Interestingly, many of the sample social media policies I've seen do not contain these types of terms.

As Kirkpatrick notes, CNN has been through this once before, with the departure of Octavia Nasr, who seems to have transitioned her Tweets and followers to her personal account (from OctaviaNasrCNN to OctaviaNasr).  Maybe she took the route advised in the "how to change your Twitter name without losing followers" post above?   

The more interesting issues may be the non-legal/contractual ones. What's it going to be like for him to interact with his followers after this is over? How will the followers/co-workers (etc.) react?

[I've never watched Sanchez on CNN before, but I came across a Jon Stewart clip that does not place Sanchez in a particularly flattering light (as far as newscasters go):  "Jon Stewart Eviscerates Rick Sanchez Over Tsunami Coverage."  Ouch.]

Added:
  thanks to LBW for the link.  In the comments, Antonin Pribetic pours a bucket of cold water over this hypothetical: 
As far as Sanchez's 148,000 followers is concerned, there is no proprietary right to followers. In any event, this is a red herring since the number of followers one has is directly proportional to nothing.  
 
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Comments

  • 10/3/2010 11:17 AM Al wrote:
    Pff, your Twitter handle doesn't need renaming. Not only is it not that long or complex anyway, Twitter handles are kind of like phone numbers - you don't need to memorize them, you just need to be able to find it somewhere when desiring to look it up.

    If I were Rick, I'd simply rename the handle to drop CNN and intend to keep the existing followers. But, that's not the same as saying that he has a clear legal right to do so.
    Reply to this
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