Who Owns Your Social Media Account?



The impact of social media is being felt in many aspects of users’ daily lives, and is also generating interesting questions about how this impact will play out in the future.

One question that has loomed large in the headlines is that of what happens to a user’s social media account when he or she dies?

Who owns that account? Who has the right to use the data associated with it? This question took center stage when a recent rumor purported that actor Bruce Willis was considering suing Apple Computers for not allowing him to leave the content in his iTunes account to his daughters. While this rumor was later debunked, the uproar it generated demonstrates what an important consideration this is for users of social media and digital content sites.

A recent article by a law professor at the University of Illinois has proposed enacting a federal law in the U.S. to address ownership of social media accounts and related data after the user has died. So if there is not yet a law in place that addresses ownership of social media accounts and the data in those accounts, what governs such situations? Currently, the answer depends on the terms of use of the particular site you are using. For example, the terms of use for Facebook include a provision that states that you are granting Facebook a non-exclusive, irrevocable license to any content that you upload to the social network.

Another question related to ownership of social media accounts that has gotten lots of attention is who owns a social media account that you use at work. The answer to this question often comes down to what the terms of the employee’s agreement with his or her employer state. This is why it is important to address who owns your social media accounts when starting a job involving using social media, and whether you will retain ownership of those accounts if you leave.

This holds expecially true when your ‘personal’ and ‘work’ life is so connected that you use one social account to represent both. A recent example of the blended profile is a long time friend of Social Media Club, Richard Binhammer.

Richard has been using the @RichardatDELL Twitter account for years where he connected with friends, shared interesting tech news and also, provided company updates and offered help for people looking to connect with Dell. Richard was ‘Richard Binhammer’, but he was also ‘Richard, Dell employee’ as his Twitter handle clearly indicates. Richard recently left his role at Dell, and in an interesting move, turned the @RichardatDell account (with 13,500+ followers) over to the company use as they see fit. It seems in Richard’s eyes, that account belonged to Dell, and he has chosen to ‘start over’ now with a personal account at @RBinhammer. For some, it seems clear who owns the @RichardatDell account, but this may not be the case for everyone. Again, there should be a policy in place to determine such things to avoid issues when changes are needing to be made. 

Finally, there is the hot topic of who owns a minor’s social media account? Again, it comes down to a combination of the terms of use of the particular site, as well as federal law. The terms of use for Facebook state that children under the age of 13 are not to use Facebook, and that users are not to provide false information on the site. These terms are important because in the United States, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), sites targeted at children are not to collect personally identifiable information from children under the age of 13 without getting verifiable parental consent. But given that 92 percent of kids under the age of 4 have an online presence, and that untold numbers of children under the age of 13 have Facebook and other social media accounts, it’s clear that the mechanisms for keeping kids safe online may need some adjustments to better suit how kids and parents use social media. It’s not surprising that this week, as the Federal Trade Commission is slated to release its updated COPPA regulations, Facebook is again pushing for changes that would allow it to test out its own mechanisms for keeping kids safe online. If you get a chance, read the 20 page letter that Facebook sent to the FTC to get a better idea of what the company is proposing.

We’ll see how the answers to these and other questions about social media develop. I think it will definitely be another interesting year at the intersection of social media and the law. As always, this post is intended to be informative and hopefully entertaining, but is not intended to be legal advice or a substitute for the advice of a licensed attorney in your area.