A federal district court broke new social media law ground in August 2014 when it held in favor of the cable network Black Entertainment Television (BET) in a suit brought by the founder of an unofficial Facebook fan page for one of the network’s television shows. In holding that BET acted lawfully when it asked Facebook to transfer the fan-created page’s “likes” to a BET-sponsored page, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida established important precedent: The only individual who can possibly claim to own a “like” on a Facebook page is the individual user responsible for it.
Insurance agent Stacey Mattocks was so devoted to the television series The Game that she created an unofficial Facebook fan page for the show in 2008. By the time BET acquired the rights to The Game from the CW Network in 2009, Mattocks’ fan page had garnered a huge following, and BET—reportedly having failed to attract similar support for the show’s official fan page—wanted to capitalize on the social media audience that Mattocks had amassed.
Thus began a series of negotiations between Mattocks and BET, with Mattocks at one point managing the page for the Viacom-owned cable channel for $30 an hour. During Mattocks’ tenure in that part-time position, BET provided her with exclusive content to post on the Facebook page and began displaying its trademark and logos on it. The page’s following grew from two million to more than six million fans.
At this point, in early 2011, Mattocks and BET entered into a letter agreement granting BET administrative access to the Facebook page and the right to post content on it in exchange for the network’s promise not to change Mattocks’ administrative rights to the page. But Mattocks broke the agreement in 2012 when, after refusing a reported $85,000 annual salary offer from BET, she cut off the network’s control of the Facebook page and informed BET that she would maintain that restriction until the parties reached “an amicable and mutually beneficial resolution” concerning her employment.
BET reacted to being cut off by asking Facebook to “migrate” the page’s fans to a BET-sponsored page. After determining that the BET-sponsored page officially represented The Game’s brand owner, Facebook complied. Twitter also complied with BET’s separate request to disable The Game Twitter account that Mattocks maintained.
Mattocks filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging that BET tortiously interfered with Mattocks’ contractual relationships with Facebook and Twitter; breached its letter agreement with Mattocks; breached a duty of good faith and fair dealing with Mattocks; and converted a business interest that Mattocks had in the page. In late August 2014, the court held that BET was entitled to summary judgment on all of Mattocks’ claims.
The Dismissal of the Conversion Claim
In his opinion, Judge James Cohn set out the case’s most significant holding—that Mattocks couldn’t establish a property interest in the “likes” on the Facebook page that she maintained for The Game—in the context of dismissing Mattocks’ conversion claim. To prove a conversion claim under Florida law, Judge Cohn stated that “a plaintiff must offer facts sufficient to show ownership of the subject property.” Mattocks couldn’t establish that she owns a property interest in the “likes” on The Game’s Facebook page, Judge Cohn held, because of “the tenuous relationship between ‘likes’ on a Facebook page and the creator of the page,” as is evidenced by the fact that a Facebook user always maintains the ability to revoke a “like” by clicking an “unlike” button.
The court further opined that—based on a case holding that a public employee’s “like” of a political-campaign page constitutes a protected form of free speech—“if anyone can be deemed to own the ‘likes’ on a page, it is the individual users responsible for them.”
The Opinion’s Impact on Businesses
The Mattocks v. Black Entm’t case highlights the need for a company to have appropriate agreements in place with its employees and contractors who manage social media accounts for the company’s brands.
Regarding account passwords, be wary of vesting full administrative access to a company social media account in a single employee; by providing for shared administrative access, a company increases the likelihood of maintaining access to such account even if one of the company’s social media managers is terminated. And, of course, a company should change its account passwords after ending its relationship with any employee or contractor who had been provided with access to such passwords. (For other risk-reduction tips on this subject, please see our earlier article, “Ownership of Business-Related Social Media Accounts,” located here.)