A Florida judge says Facebook likes aren't the property of page creators
Stacey Mattocks, an insurance agent, is credited with helping to revive the show about the lives of professional football players and their significant others. Following its cancellation in 2009 by The CW, Mattocks started a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter, and eventually, the show landed at BET.
But in June 2014, after a dispute arose over who should control the Facebook fan page going forward, Mattocks sued the Viacom-owned cable channel for allegedly committing tortious interference, breach of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, and copyright infringement. She later amended the lawsuit to add a claim of unlawful conversion.
According to Mattocks' lawsuit, BET originally agreed to pay her $30 per hour to work as a social media "freelancer," but then sought a permanent way to capitalize on her efforts. The cable network offered her an $85,000-a-year salary, which she rejected as too low. But after BET "wined and dined" her and flew her out to Los Angeles for promotional interviews, she became somewhat more receptive, especially after Facebook temporarily disabled her account when she refused to transfer ownership of the fan page to the network.
Mattocks then entered into a "Letter Agreement" with BET. The cable network agreed that she wouldn't be excluded from the page, and Mattocks agreed to grant BET full administrative access. Mattocks says she executed the agreement fearing that her account would otherwise be disabled.
The lawsuit also spoke of negotiations by BET to buy the page outright. The offer was $15,000; Mattocks wanted $1.2 million.
With negotiations going poorly, Mattocks demoted BET's administrative access on the Facebook page from "manager" to "moderator," which prompted BET to send a cease-and-desist letter citing intellectual property and demand that Facebook remove the page, which, in turn, led to Mattocks' lawsuit. While the case was being litigated, both sides trotted out economists and experts to opine on the value of 6 million Facebook likes, with one side arguing it was worth millions of dollars and the other side arguing it was worth practically nothing.
On Wednesday, though, U.S. District Judge James Cohn puts an end to the dispute.
In what might be a first-of-its-kind ruling, the judge addresses Mattocks' claim that BET stole her likes.
"Based on the record, Mattocks cannot establish that she owns a property interest in the 'likes' on the FB Page," writes the judge in an opinion (read here). " 'Liking' a Facebook Page simply means that the user is expressing his or her enjoyment or approval of the content. At any time, moreover, the user is free to revoke the 'like' by clicking an 'unlike' button. So if anyone can be deemed to own the 'likes' on a Page, it is the individual users responsible for them. Given the tenuous relationship between 'likes' on a Facebook Page and the creator of the Page, the 'likes' cannot be converted in the same manner as goodwill or other intangible business interests."
The judge also terminated Mattocks' tortious interference claim because the defendant had an economic interest in protecting its own intellectual property.
"While BET may also have had other financial motives in disabling the Page and Twitter account, no record evidence shows that BET took these steps for purely malicious reasons," continues the judge. "And though Mattocks claims that BET removed the Page and account 'under false pretenses,' she has produced no substantial evidence that Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions to shut down the services were ultimately based on anything other than the companies’ policies protecting brand owners’ rights."
Finally, Judge Cohn also rejects the claims based on BET's alleged breach of the "Letter Agreement" because Mattocks first violated her contractual obligations by demoting BET’s access on the Facebook page. Thus, whatever BET did, it was excused by the plaintiff's own contractual nonperformance.