Web presence is becoming more and more valuable as a way to engage with people at all levels – and this is just as true for brands, such as TV shows, as it is for larger companies. Fandoms – the loose connection of followers that grow up around most entertainment series nowadays – have begun to wield real power, their ability to connect with actors, writers and directors even shaping the way shows are made.
Conversion of property is usually alleged in cases where one party has taken control of another’s property for his or her own use without necessarily claiming ownership.
All of this leads to one conclusion: social media connections, whether they’re Facebook “likes” or Twitter “follows,” are a hot commodity. In a recent lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, a judge was asked to rule directly on who owns Facebook likes for the TV show The Game – and his ruling, in the end, could have consequences for fans and content-producers alike.
The case began when Stacey Mattlocks, a fan of The Game who ran a Facebook page with over six million “likes,” accused Black Entertainment Television LLC of stealing her property when the channel asked Facebook to “migrate” her page’s likes to The Games’ official fan page. BET did this, it seems, after negotiations over whether Mattlock should be made a full-time employee failed. Mattlocks, already a part-time employee after BET gave their seal of approval to her Facebook page, allegedly struck a deal with BET upon hire whereby neither side would deny the other access to the page. While a part-time employee of BET, Mattlocks oversaw the page’s growth from an estimated two million fans to over six million users – an impressive feat and one with obvious business worth to BET.
According to court documents, Mattlocks’ decided to deny BET access to the page while negotiating for full-time employment, thereby prompting the company to request Facebook to migrate the page’s “likes” to ensure they maintained control and access to the fans. According to Mattlocks, of course, the act of migrating the likes (which Facebook agreed to do, effectively stripping the fan page of its users, and adding the millions of fans to The Games’ official page) was illegal and constituted conversion of property.
Here, we have the big question for the court: are “likes” property? Conversion of property is usually alleged in cases where one party has taken control of another’s property for his or her own use without necessarily claiming ownership. A mechanic, for example, might take a customer’s car out for a spin without asking permission. Or, in a more literal sense, an individual might simply start using someone else’s home or office without the right to do so. In this way, conversion is slightly different than “theft.”
How does this relate to social media followers, though? They’re not a commodity and have no inherent value, but Mattlocks is understandably aggrieved that she’s suddenly lost something that took so long to build, and clearly did have value in the eyes of BET. After all, if likes don’t mean anything, why bother migrating them? And if they’re not property, how can they be transferred from one account to another?
In the end, when the judge granted BET’s motion for summary judgment, it was the users themselves that formed the basis of his decision. Facebook users are always free to like or unlike whichever pages they choose, and thus, the judge ruled, those users own their own likes. At any point, fans of The Game could unlike Mattlocks’ page, or like the official page, or take any other course of action. A page, then, can never claim to own the following it gains. This is an important point to remember.
Companies are already becoming increasingly educated about the risks of allowing an individual employee to reign over social media platforms. Gaffs and inappropriate content can affect brands adversely. (Just yesterday, DiGiorno made the news after inappropriately jumping on a Twitter hashtag intended for victims of domestic violence). Additionally, should an employee be fired or switch jobs, the ability to hold a company’s social media accounts “hostage” poses genuine problems – especially in the case of disgruntled workers. (In 2013, HMV made the mistake of announcing mass layoffs while its social media manager was in the room, prompting the now infamous HMV live-tweeting disaster.)
This ruling should actually act as a warning to individuals and social media workers: the followings and communities you help build up are not, and never have been, yours. Work done in the name of a business, whether it be blog writing or social media management, remains the property of that business, and individuals have no more claim to “own” the Facebook likes on pages they manage than businesses could ever “own” the fandoms and communities that follow their brand.