Participation blurs the line between who owns traditional corporate IP

Posted by: in Social Media Insights & Trends on June 5, 2009

Large public companies have been struggling with a variety of issues around social media. One of the more recent to come to light is more of a legal nature. Most employees sign agreements that anything they think of or work on during their employment belongs to the company. It’s typical “work for hire” contract language. But as we know, social media changes everything. So, if I blog or twitter as part of my job and I amass a large group of followers and then I leave my job – who do my followers belong to, me or the company? The company would argue that the followers belong to them and that the list of people is their IP, but what happens if the lawyers try to enforce that. Even a legitimate legal claim could backfire on them causing severe brand dilution.

When companies are trying to establish their corporate policies around the social media, they need to stop taking a “this is how we do it” attitude. The social web requires rethinking all of your traditional business rules and practices, it no longer matters how you did business last year, last month, or yesterday, but how you will do business tomorrow. This particular issue affects multiple business units and raises many questions. Should HR and legal be discussing re-writing their employment contracts? Can one agreement cover all situations? The company can argue that they provided the platform, but was the employee speaking for the company or him/herself, was blogging part of the job description, was it being done on company time? Should companies have plans and policies in place to purchase the list of these social followers?  Does the company suffer from brand dilution when an employee leaves a company and no longer provides that communication between the company and its customers?

These are just a few of the questions that come to mind as more and more companies like DELL and Zappos start to encourage a large number of their employees to participate in the conversation with their customers…And what happens, if anything, to high-affinity brands like Apple who have a policy of not allowing employees to communicate in any way with its customer base.

It is a hot issue for sure and one that Michael Della Penna and I are tackling head on as part of SuiteDialog/Rule 13’s social media practices.  For more information on SuiteDialog & Rule 13 visit the websites or drop us an email at

By: Bob Pearson

Bob is the President of W2O Group, an independent network of digital communications and marketing companies. He is an author, frequent speaker and instructor for Rutgers center for management development. After the success of his book Pre-Commerce, Bob is currently working on a new book on the future of media titled Storytizing that will be available in 2014. Prior to W2O Group, Bob worked as VP of Communities and Conversations at Dell to develop the Fortune 500’s first global social media function -- an industry-leading approach to the use of social media, as highlighted in the best seller, GroundSwell. Before Dell, Bob was Head of Global Corporate Communications and Head of Global Pharma Communications at Novartis Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland, where he served on the Pharma Executive Committee. He also serves on a variety of Boards in health and technology. Highlights include serving as an original member of the P&G digital advisory board and being appointed by the Governor of Texas to serve as chair and vice chair of the emerging technology fund for the State of Texas.

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Pre-Commerce Check out W2O Group President Bob Pearson's new book, Pre-Commerce, in which he shares ideas for leaders to engage directly with customers to shape their brand and marketplace success. Now available for order on! Join the conversation #precommerce.

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