Court to Decide If Employer or Employee Owns LinkedIn Account

If you use a LinkedIn account to promote your business, can the business claim the account belongs to it? That's one of the issues at stake in a legal dispute between Linda Eagle and her former employer, Edcomm. A trial is set for October 16. But even before the court decides what to do about Eagle's account, there are rules, laws and best practices that can help users avoid more dust-ups like this one.

If you use a LinkedIn account to promote your business, can the business claim the account belongs to it? That’s one of the issues at stake in a legal dispute between Linda Eagle and her former employer, Edcomm.

Eagle was a founder of the company Edcomm, which provides education for people in the banking industry. As president of the company, Eagle endeavored to drum up business using her LinkedIn account.

Eagle and her co-founders later sold Edcomm to Sawabeh Information Services and were forced out. The new owners immediately took over her LinkedIn account, swapping in her replacement’s title and photo. The resume, recommendations and connections remained Eagle’s.

Eagle sued.

The company has claimed in court that it maintained the LinkedIn account, and that it was a work product belonging to the company. The defendants asserted unsuccessfully that the connections and other information contained in the LinkedIn account were trade secrets. Eagle maintains that the account was her own, although she had accessed it with the help of employee Elizabeth Sweeney.

In an October 4 decision, the federal district court in Eastern Pennsylvania slapped down Eagle’s claims that Sawabeh violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act because Eagle didn’t show concrete harm. It also rejected her claim under the Lanham Act, which is basically a trademark law, saying Eagle (who is representing herself) didn’t provide evidence to support that potential clients would have been confused. The decision left only state laws as the basis for the continuing dispute over the LinkedIn account.

A trial is set for October 16. But even before the court decides what to do about Eagle’s account, there are rules, laws and best practices that can help users avoid more dust-ups like this one.

Rules: As law professor Eric Goldman observes on his Technology and Marketing Law Blog, LinkedIn’s terms of service bar users from operating an account under another’s name. In this case, both Eagle and Sawabeh broke that rule.

Laws: California recently finalized a law banning employers from demanding access to employees’ accounts, and other states are looking at similar statutes.

Best practices: Make sure to distinguish your own social networking accounts from those you maintain on behalf of your employer.

LinkedIn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.