Is it legal to buy or sell social media handles?
Social media handles are a huge asset in the hands of the right companies. Afterall, brands big and small alike spend a lot of time and money trying to acquire customers and even more trying to keep them. Stamping out brand confusion and protecting a brand is central to most businesses, especially when dealing with commerce online. For the aforementioned reasons, it’s no wonder that companies want the social media handles that match their brand.
What happens when a brand needs a social media handle that is already taken? Sometimes a brand is able to acquire a handle by simply asking the current owner. Sometimes a brand is able to prove to the social media platform that a handle is being misused and infringing upon trademarks or copyrights which will then allow the brand to take control of the handle by contesting the current owner’s use. And sometimes, a handle is being used by someone who is unwilling to give up the handle and is also using it in good faith, thereby making its current use valid. When a situation like this arises, many brands try to buy the handle from the current owner to make the situation simply go away.
So that begs the question: Is buying and selling of social media handles legal? For starters, I’m not a lawyer and this isn’t legal advice. As far as I know there aren’t any laws in the U.S. prohibiting the sale or purchase of a handle. But with that being stated, many platforms do expressly prohibit the sale or purchase of a handle within their Terms of Service (ToS).
What this means is that if you are caught purchasing a handle from another person or organization then the social media platform has every right to reverse the transfer, delete the handle, and/or ban the account or accounts associated with the sale.
To complicate matters a bit more, in most of the ToS for these platforms, the actual transfer of an account is permitted so long as you’re not solely buying the social media handle itself and not engaging in an unauthorized transfer of the account per the platform ToS. There’s nothing worse than shelling out a lot of time and money only to have the handle you’ve purchased then become locked or deleted because the ToS wasn’t correctly followed.
So in what cases could you actually take control of a handle and not run afoul of the ToS? There are a few situations that the social media platforms generally seem to allow:
- You simply ask the current owner for the handle and they oblige. The current owner would delete their account or move their account to a new handle and the old handle in question becomes available. You can then rename your own account to the newly available handle in question. No account has changed hands, just the handles of the accounts have changed.
- If you purchase a company lock, stock, and barrel (or even perhaps a stock purchase), then it’s assumed you’ll take over the online branding of said company which would mean acquiring the company’s social media handles. In this scenario you’re buying the company for the company, not for the social media handles themselves. Twitter, Instagram, and others generally don’t seem to have an issue with this type of transfer.
- When you sign the current owner of the handle to a consultant contracting agreement and you take control of the account as part of the consulting contract conditions. See an example here: https://techcrunch.com/2009/04/15/confirmed-cnn-acquires-cnnbrk-twitter-account/
- When the current owner of the handle is impersonating, infringing on trademarks or copyrights, or otherwise causing intentional brand confusion with a social media handle then you might have a case to take over the disputed handle since most social media platforms have a way to contest usage of handles. Depending on the current user’s use, this might be a clean-cut way to acquire the handle without having to negotiate with the handle owner directly. However, trying to contest and take over a handle without proper due diligence can make the brand look like a bully and, in many cases, can land the brand in a PR nightmare.
If you’re a brand who is looking for guidance on how to acquire a social media handle and need expert guidance on the steps you need to take in order to do so, contact me. The first consult is free and we can come up with a strategy to acquire your desired handle while keeping your company shielded from the many pitfalls previous companies have experienced.