Boris Johnson ‘steals’ Twitter followers for a day – but who owns a Twitter account?

You may have seen in the press recently that Boris Johnson moved all of his Twitter followers from @MayorofLondon to @BorisJohnson. This move meant that he essentially transferred just over 250,000 followers in one fell swoop from the Mayoral feed – to which they originally signed up – to the Boris Johnson re-election campaign.

Labour complained that migrating the official mayoral account (set up and funded by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and not by the Conservative Party) was a misuse of resources and requested that the GLA carry out an investigation into his actions. Comparisons were drawn to the Prime Ministerial Twitter account which was set up under Gordon Brown but remains an official No. 10 feed now being used by David Cameron’s government.

You may have also seen in the press that after a couple of hours of ‘hysteria’ Boris decided to stop using the account to further his re-election campaign.

This case is undoubtedly more complex than the average dispute over ownership of a Twitter account, as the issue of how and when political figures separate their roles as civil servants and their role as party politicians was a key aspect of the debate. It does however, raise a very interesting question of who actually “owns” a Twitter account.

Technically, you don’t own the account – simply the right to use the account under a contract with Twitter. However, the law may view that contract as being held by an employee for the benefit of his or her employer.

Here are a few key issues to consider if you are an employer concerned about how employees use social media in a work context, or indeed if you are individual keen to ring-fence your social media presence from your employer’s brand:

Who owns the copyright in the tweets?
Tweets are capable of being ‘copyright’ works, so that means that they are intellectual property. The default position is that any intellectual property created in the general course of employment is owned by the employer – but this depends on what the employment contract (including any staff handbooks or social media policies) actually say. Whereas if the tweets are created in a personal capacity in personal time, then the intellectual property should be owned by the individual.

In reality, many Twitter users will tweet from their account both during working time and personal time. After all, Twitter is about interacting with other Twitter users, and Twitter does not go offline for the night when people leave their offices.

Who owns the twitter followers?
The more important and potentially more valuable issue is who actually owns the account (and by this we really mean the followers). If it is being resourced by the organisation rather than by an individual then it is most likely the organisation that ‘owns’ the feed as they are the ones that are fuelling it. This was a key issue with the mayoral feed.

It gets very hazy where the tweets are very personal in nature, but the employer’s brand is inter-woven. Think of the press coverage last year when @BBCLauraK moved to @ITVLauraK. Is the news station or Laura Kuenssberg the bigger brand? In this case, Laura Kuenssberg ceased using her former employer’s brand when she moved job – there would be no confusion amongst Twitter followers over who she now works for.

The law in this area, is far from clear cut: particularly when the Twitter handle does not include the employer’s brand/trade marks. If you are concerned then the best advice would be to ensure that your organisation’s policies and employment contracts clearly address the issue of who owns Twitter handles and defines rules around the use of your organisation’s intellectual property on Twitter, such as the organisation’s name forming part of the account name. Organisations should have a social media policy in place to deal with this and related issues such as conduct and content of tweets.

So, returning to the original issue of who ‘owns’ the Mayor of London feed, the big question is, is Boris actually sending all of these Tweets himself or are employees (read civil servants rather than campaign staff) doing it? At the very least I would imagine that the Mayor’s Twitter presence would have been strategised by a marketing team – was that team employed by the Conservative Party or by the GLA?

The BBC reported that when asked if Boris Johnson had personally written all of the Tweets, a spokeswoman stated that the Tweets were ‘the authentic voice of the mayor’. There’s nothing like transparency.

Leigh Kirktpatrick

1 Response to “Boris Johnson ‘steals’ Twitter followers for a day – but who owns a Twitter account?”



  1. 1 Who owns what on Twitter? « Leanne Forshaw Jones Trackback on April 5, 2012 at 11:00 am

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