By Scott Hervey
The answer may surprise you.
This dispute over ownership of Facebook ‘likes’ pits the creator of a fan Facebook page for a TV show against the television network that owns the show. The facts of the dispute are as follows: From 2008, the CW Network broadcasted the television series “The Game”, a dramatic comedy about the lives of professional football players and their wives and girlfriends. BET acquired the syndication rights to the series in 2010 and then in 2011 began producing original episodes.
In 2008, when the series was on the CW Network, Stacey Mattocks created a Facebook fan page for the series. Mattocks did not post any CW or BET owned content and she did not hold the Facebook page out to the public as the “official” series page. Around October 2010, BET hired Mattocks to perform part-time work managing the series’ Facebook page. BET then regularly instructed Mattocks to post, or not to post, certain information on the page and provided her with exclusive photos and video clips. Mattocks posted most of the content on the FB Page, but BET employees also occasionally posted material. Apparently Mattocks did a good job managing the series’ Facebook page as the number of ‘likes’ grew from around two million to over six million.
In February 2011, BET and Mattocks entered into a written agreement regarding each parties’ rights and privileges regarding the Facebook page. Mattocks granted BET full administrative access to the page, and BET agreed not to exclude Mattocks from the page by changing her administrative rights. However, it appears that this agreement was silent on which party owned the Facebook page.
After signing the agreement, the parties discussed the possibility of BET employing Mattocks on a full-time basis. At one time during the course of their negotiations, Mattocks informed BET that she would restrict BET’s administrative access to the page until they concluded their negotiations. Shortly after Mattocks restricted BET’s administrative rights, BET requested Facebook to migrate the fans of the page to another official series Facebook page created by BET. Facebook granted BET’s request and migrated the ‘likes’ associated with the previous page to this new BET official page. That same day BET sent Mattocks a letter declaring her in breach of their written agreement and rescinding all rights previously granted to her concerning any BET intellectual property. Mattocks promptly sued for, among other causes, conversion of a business interest she held in the Facebook page – namely, the ‘likes’ that the page accumulated while she worked on it.
The court addressed Mattocks’ conversion claim in ruling on BET’s summary judgment motion. The court noted that under applicable law, a conversion is an unauthorized act which deprives another of his property permanently or for an indefinite time. To prove a conversion claim, Mattocks would have to introduce facts sufficient to show sufficient ownership of the subject property – the ‘likes’ – and that BET wrongfully asserted dominion over that property. The court found that Mattocks had not established that she owned a property interest in the ‘likes’ on the Facebook page. The court reasoned that ‘liking’ a Facebook page simply means that the user is expressing approval of the content. The user is free to revoke the ‘like’ by clicking an ‘unlike’ button at any time. The court concluded that if anyone owns ‘likes’ on a Facebook page, it is the users who made them. Even if Mattocks did have an ownership interest in the ‘likes’, the migration to another BET Facebook page did not amount to conversion because it was not unauthorized; it was done with Facebook’s permission.
The takeaway from this case is not BET’s vindication for migrating the ‘likes’, but rather the court’s position that neither BET nor Mattocks held a proprietary interest in the ‘likes.’ So who owns the ‘likes’ on your Facebook page? Not you.