It’s all about ownership…intellectual property and social media

As an educator, I own what I create and take it with me when I no longer teach a particular course, unit or program. Administration, the school, or the district does not own these materials: they are mine alone.

So, who owns what we create on social media? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Some social media sites claim ownership, in the small print (of course). But, in the world of social media, more and more is being created as part of a group effort. GoogleDocs and Wiki’s with multiple bits of owners, all contributing. And laws of ownership become murky.

A case in point is happening right now in Maine: a founder of a charter school (Maine’s first) who registered and created social media resources without compensation before the school was even created and approved. He developed a full website, a Facebook presence, and created numerous GoogleDocs to gather information necessary to start a private school: names, addresses and phone numbers of potential students and their parents. He built databases of information; he was only hired after the school was approved and given charter status by the State of Maine.

Now, he has taken the school’s entire social media presence hostage. He’s revoked shared privileges of GoogleDocs a week before his termination, and brought down both the website and Facebook presence the day after. He was also using applications for teaching and staffing position information that the board cannot access. And nearly all of the school’s data was reliant on GoogleDocs. So, who owns it?

Of course the board needs these resources: 160 interested students who’s funding is required to open the school this fall. The terminated director plans to utilize these resources, his intellectual property, in another endeavor – maybe even a competing charter school.

Clearly lawyers are going to get richer, as both sides have hired attorneys to sort out the legalities. According to Frauenheim, in the Workforce Management article: Social Media and HR: You can’t take it with you…or can you?, “Experts say companies ought to get out ahead of the portability problem by setting clear rules from the get-go about long-term ownership of social media material. Attention to the details of how social media accounts are set up also matters.” This was the case with recruiter Jackie Juge who left Microsoft, and took her five years worth of contact information with her. She now works for a division of Google (Frauenheim, 2011).

Many companies who don’t have a policy, or don’t clearly articulate exactly what their policy covers can find themselves in the same boat that Microsoft and now Baxter Academy for Technology and Science are in. A key component must include no-compete clauses and especially refer to social media created prior to yet becoming the property of the new entity, such as with the case of Baxter Academy failed to do. This is becoming more critical because “social media portability is a gray area lacking clear legal guidance” says Kathy O’Reilly, director of social medial relations for Monster Worldwide, Inc. “There really aren’t any precedent-setting cases” (Frauenheim, 2011). 

In the meantime, the school is at a stalemate with its founder, each suing the other — as the board is trying desperately to recreate their social media resources.

Frauenheim, E. (2011). Social media and HR: You can’t take it with you…or can you? Workforce Management 90(6), 32-37. 

Gallagher, N. (2013, March 11). Portland charter school sues its founder. Portland Press Herald. Retrieved from:

Note: printed newspaper article of Portland Press Herald in the March 9th edition was titled: Academy fights for control of websites. It was the same author.


6 thoughts on “It’s all about ownership…intellectual property and social media

  1. Lauren Peters

    Thank you for your post. I have a good friend who is an educator in mid-coast Maine. My first thought was to forward this article to her. Since this is on a blog and is therefore a public document, I assume that we don’t have any rights to what we post except for the common decency of giving credit to the author. In fact, most people long for others to forward their blogs to others. That is what a blog is all about, right?

    Maybe we are thinking, however, that we are a closed group and are assuming some sort of limited exposure to our class only. Forwarding a blog meant only to be seen by our class might be a breach of etiquette or worse. Maybe SJSU has a policy that I am breaking by forwarding your blog to someone not enrolled here.

    But, there are rights and there is polite. So, I am asking if I may please forward this article to my friend? I believe she will gain some insight to the issue as did I.

  2. Lori

    Thanks for asking…I’m totally fine with your sharing the blog link and her gaining new insights/even contributing her thoughts. I am still on the fence on who’s side I am on; who is right. It seems there are many factors that have not yet come to light.

  3. Deborah Cooper

    I, too, have mixed feelings about this. I also sense there’s an unwritten part to this story – why the guy was fired after he had done all this work to get the school going. Reading the newspaper article seemed to suggest that it was personal and/or political. So the issue of ownership is muddied by all these other things surrounding the case. I only have my own experience to go on and I have found that when I was working as a freelance writer/editor that I pretty much owned NOTHING. Individuals basically agree to ridiculous contracts or not get paid. Even when I was a full time employee at a corporation I had to sign a non-compete and non-ownership of anything paperwork. So it seems like in general the world is weighted in favor of the companies and their lawyers. In this case, if the person was hired i.e. being paid to create the web site, facebook, etc. for the future school then whoever was paying him is probably the legal owner. If he wasn’t being paid but did all the work as a volunteer trying to get the school started then I think he has a strong case of ownership. But the fact that he has a database of potential parent/child names and addresses is worrying!

    Please let us know what happens!


  4. Barnaby Hughes

    A related question is: who owns your social media followers? I came across a fascinating article recently ( about an employee who was sued by his former employer for taking his Twitter followers with him. The company “sought damages of $340,000 for alleged misappropriation over eight months — at $2.50 a follower per month.” How do you monetize something like that? While it will be interesting to see what the law courts have to make of this, it would be better for companies to craft policies in advance.

  5. Christy Confetti Higgins

    This is a very very interesting situation and I too would like to know the outcome. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Christy Confetti Higgins

    Also, our class blog is a public blog and people outside of our class can read it, comment on it, and learn from it. In another class about research using social media tools, one student posted her final competitive analysis report on the class blog and the company she wrote about found it and commented on it – it was a great connection!


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