I first presented this article at the World Journalism Education Congress in Paris. It was recently published in the New York University Journal of Intellectual Property & Entertainment Law. Read the article or download a PDF version.

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In 2018 The Roanoke Times sued one of its former sports reporters over what the outlet called a breach of its social media policy. Andy Bitter, the reporter, left his position at The Times for a competing news outlet.

He took with him the Twitter account he had used at the outlet. The Times claimed its social media policy states that the outlet retains ownership of reporters’ social media accounts, and therefore Bitter should have turned over the account before leaving for his new job.

This case, along with my previous research about newsroom social media policies, led Andrew Horsfall and I to write this research paper.

Key Points

  • Examines the use of trade secret laws on the part of employers to assert ownership of employees’ social media accounts within the journalism industry.
  • In the first case of its kind in the United States, one media company took a former employee to court over the question of ownership.
  • The outlet attempted to utilize trade secret laws to assert ownership of the account.
  • My co-author and I argue the strategy in this case and several other lawsuits, is an ill-fitted approach. Social media accounts, their associated followers are not “secret,” no matter the industry.
  • We offer provisions of a policy that would protect news outlets while also acknowledging the importance of social media accounts to the livelihood of journalists and to the free flow of information from journalists to the public.
Failed Strategy: Using Trade Secret Laws to Assert Ownership of Employees’ Social Media Accounts in the Journalism Industry

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