Are employees' LinkedIn contacts considered your trade secrets?

January 4, 2012
By Eric B. Meyer on January 4, 2012 7:00 AM | | Comments

Over the past several weeks, you probably read about this case involving a company suing one of its former employees whom it alleges misappropriated a Twitter account and, along with it, 17,000 Twitter followers that the company believes it owns. A video about the case follows below:


Late last month, I learned of another case (h/t TechDirt), in which a former high-level executive and her prior employer are currently duking it out to see who owns the connections on the executive's LinkedIn page. More on this story and whether LinkedIn contacts are even trade secrets at all, after the jump...

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A fight over LinkedIn connections.

The case is Eagle v. Morgan. You can find a copy of Ms. Eagle's complaint here. And the defendants' counterclaim complaint here.

Here are the basic facts according to the pleadings that the parties filed:

  • Dr. Linda Eagle is the former founder of Edcomm, Inc.

  • Dr. Eagle created a LinkedIn page -- this one, actually -- which she used to promote both herself and Edcomm.

  • One of the defendants assisted Dr. Eagle in maintaining her account and had access to Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn password.

  • Edcomm was sold and Dr. Eagle was fired.

  • The new owners changed Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn password, removed Dr. Eagle's name and picture from the LinkedIn page, and represented that she had resigned. They left all other information the same. (Dr. Eagle has since regained control of her LinkedIn page).

The defendants claim that Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn connections belong to them and that Dr. Eagle effectively stole those connections. The defendants also claim that Dr. Eagle now reaps the benefit of the time and effort that the defendants previously put into maintaining her LinkedIn account. (The new owners contend that former employees of Edcomm were required to utilize an Edcomm template when creating LinkedIn accounts, use an Edcomm email address, and permit Edcomm to monitor their Linkedin pages).

In October, Dr. Eagle filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. Effectively, she asked the court to apply the law solely to the facts pled in the defendants' counterclaim complaint and her response. Below, I address whether Dr. Eagle stole company trade secrets.

LinkedIn connections are not trade secrets.

To qualify as a trade secret, the subject information must not be generally known in the wider business community or capable of being easily derived from public information. Put another way, trade secrets must be particular secrets of the complaining employer and not general secrets of the trade in which the employer is engaged. 

The court held here that LinkedIn account connections do not qualify as trade secrets, because they are generally known in the wider business community or are capable of being easily derived from public information. Think about how many 1st degree connections Dr. Eagle may have on LinkedIn with employees at Edcomm. Each of those 1st degree connections can see all of Dr. Eagle's other 1st degree connections. Heck, I went on to Dr. Eagle's LinkedIn page and could see that she was a 2nd degree contact of mine. Consequently, I could determine our common connection.

For more on why LinkedIn contacts are not trade secrets, check out Heather Bussing's post at HRExaminer: It's No Secret: Why Contacts Aren't Trade Secrets.

And, tomorrow, I'll discuss who actually owns the LinkedIn account you maintain for your employee?