Employee Blogging Risks

By Eric Goldman

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at the North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology’s symposium called “Attack of the Blog: Legal Horrors in the Workplace.” (I definitely did not pick the name!) In the morning, I spoke about the risks that companies face when their employees blog. I see blogging as a subset of Internet communications generally, so I’m not sure these risks are limited to blogging. Nevertheless, the following risks are possible:

Non-Legal Risks

* Employee relations risk. A personal dispute between employees could be taken online, triggering a flame war or exposing the personal dispute to a broad audience within and outside the company.

* Customer relations risk. Employees could make disclosures that undermine customer confidence in the company’s products by revealing too much about the company’s inner workings or by disparaging the company’s products. Employees could also oversell customers by making overstated claims about the products.

* Reputational risk. Employees might make personal disclosures about other employees/stakeholders that degrade the overall public perception of the company.

Legal Risks

* Admissions. Blog posts could be party admissions. Even if not, they could be adverse evidence introduced in litigation.

* Trade Libel. Employees could actionably disparage competitors’ products.

* Disclosure of Non-Public Information. There are several ways that employees could convert non-public information into public information in ways that have legal significance.

– If the company is publicly traded, these disclosures may manipulate the stock price or constitute securities fraud

– Employees could undermine the company’s position by tipping off competitors about plans in the works. If the employee publishes company trade secrets to the blog, in most cases that information will be irretrievably lost as a trade secret.

– Employees might disclose third party trade secrets, which could lead those third parties to bring a trade secret misappropriation claim.

– Employees might disclose patentable information that jeopardizes the company’s ability to obtain a patent using that information. For example, a blog post should start the 1 year clock ticking under 102(b). Similarly, if the foreign patent applications have not yet been filed, the blog post should negate the company’s ability to seek foreign patents on the published information. This is a real gotcha that may catch some unsuspecting companies.

Conclusion

Just to be clear, I’m not convinced these risks are all that serious. The emergence of blogs might lower the guard or caution of employees, but all of these risks would exist even without blogs, and most employees will make good choices. Even so, some employees will make poor choices, and thus companies who are concerned about employee blogging might choose to address blogging as part of an overall policy on Internet usage or disclosure of company information. At the same time, employee blogging can be a significant asset to the company, so companies might look at employee blogging as an resource to nurture rather than risky behavior to squelch.

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