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Should I Tweet That?

Social media has changed the way we interact with our friends, families, colleagues, and clients. You can “like” your favorite musician on Facebook. You can follow your favorite celebrity or athlete on Twitter. You can share pictures simultaneously with all of your friends and family with Instagram. But social networks have also changed the way many companies do business. Many small business owners have discovered that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest are powerful ways to connect with customers and clients, market products or services to larger audiences, and easily build recognition and loyalty.

But these tools also present pitfalls for the unwary. For example, you might wonder who owns the content that you create or share with a social network. In other words, if you tweet it, do you own it? On most social networks the answer is yes. Legally speaking, the author of the “creative expression”—which includes pictures, 140 character messages, status updates, and so forth—is typically entitled to copyright protection. However, all of the major social networks include terms of service that can legally affect the way other users may interact with your content. If you pin your original content to Pinterest, the network’s terms of services may entitle other users to freely repin your images (that’s the point of the site, after all). For now at least, none of the most popular social networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn—claim ownership over any material users generate. You remain the owner of the content you share. You can read more about copyright law here.

The law is less clear, however, on the question of who owns the material shared by your company’s employees. For example, if an employee has a popular Twitter handle that they use to promote the business, it may be fuzzy whether the company or the employee owns the user name. In fact, a number of courts across the country have recently considered this very issue. One company has claimed ownership of a former employee’s LinkedIn account. Although the law is far from settled, this case illustrates one of the many areas in which a company needs to act cautiously when using social media.

Given this uncertainty, companies should follow a few guidelines to tweet on the safe side:

1. Make It Clear Who Owns Your Company’s Posts

If you’re delegating your social media activity to an employee, make sure that you explain in writing who owns your company’s accounts and any content created when using those accounts. After all, once you’ve amassed a substantial following, your social media accounts become valuable business assets. By clearly stating in writing who owns your company’s social media channels, you can avoid unwelcome disputes down the road.

2. Identify Trouble Spots

While a few companies have found themselves engaged in litigation over ownership of social media accounts, it’s even more common for issues to arise when employees get reckless or abuse the accounts. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to draft a social media policy for your company specifically outlining topics to avoid when engaged in social media on behalf of your business, such as politically sensitive issues, defamatory comments (including libel or slander), or other offensive or discriminatory language.

3. Protect Your Customers

If your business handles any personal information, including contact information for your clients or customers, make sure the employees who are posting on your company’s behalf understand the importance of protecting that information. Aside from the fact that most consumers take privacy very seriously, you may run into regulatory compliance issues if customers’ information gets out. In some cases, businesses and individuals that unlawfully disclose personal information can face harsh penalties.

4. Disclose Paid Endorsements

The Federal Trade Commission has detailed rules on the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertisements. These rules apply whether the endorsement occurs on television or on Twitter. That means if you pay people to endorse or promote your business online, you’ll need to create a policy on how you’ll disclose that relationship. The FTC hasn’t mandated specific language that must be used to disclose paid endorsements, but it has suggested that hashtags such as #paid or #paidad might be appropriate. The FTC imposes penalties for businesses and individuals who fail to comply with their guidelines.

5. Train Your Crew

Failing to implement your company’s best practices for social media can damage  your reputation and create customer dissatisfaction. In some instances, it will cause you legal problems. As a result, it’s important to not only draft these policies, but also to make sure that your employees understand them. You should be sure to train all employees engaging in social media on how to follow these best practices.

Using social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest can offer significant benefits for your company. And if you take time to draft smart policies and train your employees on appropriate use, you can boost your company’s reputation and avoid legal headaches.

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