As social media has become as ubiquitous in Americans’ lives as commuting or sunsets, disputes over these new concepts have challenged the legal system to adapt archaic legal concepts to govern their use.  One such concept is a Facebook “like,” which allows a user to publicly display his or her affection for a photo, public figure, company, or just about anything else that pops up on the user’s Facebook page. Ownership interests in these “likes” became the focal point in a recent case that etched new legal ground in embedding and defining property interests in a “like.” See Mattocks v. Black Entm’t Tv LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115829 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 20, 2014).

In this case, the Plaintiff, Stacey Mattocks, created an unofficial fan page in 2008 on Facebook for the comedy series, The Game, which depicts the lives and family of football players on a fictitious football team. After the series was cancelled, it was acquired by BET to produce new episodes starting in 2010. BET hired Ms. Mattocks to continue to administer the fan page, and contracted with her to become the administrator of the official fan page, displaying BET’s trademarks and logos on the page.  Memorializing their agreement in a February 2011 contract, BET agreed not to exclude Ms. Mattocks from the fan page and Ms. Mattocks agreed to provide BET administrative rights to “update the content on the Page from time to time as determined by BET in its sole discretion.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Mattocks discarded this agreement in June 2012, when negotiations to offer her full time employment turned sour. She changed the administrative settings and restricted BET from posting on the page. Following this action BET asked Facebook to “migrate” the over 6 million users who liked the page to another page managed by BET. Ms. Mattocks sued BET, alleging, among other things, that “BET converted a business interest she had in the [Facebook] Page—namely, the “likes” that the Page had accumulated while she worked on it.” Conversion involves “an unauthorized act that deprives another of his property permanently.” In essence, Ms. Mattocks asked the court to conclude that by virtue of her running the fan page, she acquired an ownership interest in the page’s accumulated “likes”.

The court found that Ms. Mattocks’ claim could not be sustained because possession of the “likes” lay with the individual users rather than with her. The court noted that “liking” a page simply indicates that a user expresses his or her enjoyment or approval of the content, which can easily be undone with the mere click of an “unlike” button. Consequently, the court concluded that if there is a property interest in “likes,” it lay with the individual users responsible for creating them.

The Mattocks case is one instance of how courts grapple with the ever-changing world of social media, applying centuries-old legal concepts to the proliferation of electronic communications. More judicial rulings will certainly develop regarding what may or may not constitute “assets” in social media use, and interpret the mechanism of control that may develop property interests in social media.

Phil Houten

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