In a ruling with potentially far-reaching repercussions in the world of social media, a South Florida federal judge has ruled a woman who created a Facebook page for the television series “The Game” has no proprietary interest in the page that attracted 6.2 million likes.
In a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Cohn in Fort Lauderdale granted summary judgment to BET, also known as Black Entertainment Television. The cable network was sued by Broward insurance broker Stacey Mattocks, who set up a Facebook and Twitter page for fans of the comedy about professional football players and their families.
Since setting up the Facebook page in 2008, Mattocks collected 6.4 million likes and was offered a part-time job by BET to manage the Facebook and Twitter fan pages.
In 2012, BET offered Mattocks $15,000 for the rights to the two accounts. She countered with an offer of $1.5 million.
Shortly afterward, the Viacom-owned cable network informed Mattocks it was revoking her intellectual property rights to the social media accounts. The network asked Facebook to migrate her millions of fans to a site it created and asked Twitter to disable her account. Both companies complied.
Mattocks had derived income outside sources related to the Facebook and Twitter pages, including from the social network Sulia, Amazon and Google AdSense. She lost all the extra income when BET took over the pages, she alleges.
In July 2013, Mattocks sued BET, alleging tortious interference, breach of contract, breach of good faith and copyright infringement. She alleged she was responsible for the success of the show since it had been canceled by the CW network in 2009. She said BET picked up the show after she created the social media campaign. The BET premiere in 2011 attracted 7.7 million viewers.
In his ruling, Cohn concluded BET did not disable her Facebook and Twitter accounts for “purely malicious reasons.”
“And though Mattocks claims that BET removed the Page and account ‘under false pretense,’ 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,” the ruling said.
Additionally, Cohn found Mattocks breached her agreement with BET by demoting its access to her page from “manager” to “moderator.”
The part of the order social media experts are focusing on is where Cohn said, “Mattocks cannot establish that she owns a property interest in the ‘likes’ on the FB page.”
“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 wrote.
“That’s the most dramatic part of the opinion because the judge is distinguishing Facebook likes from other kinds of goodwill,” said Jan Jacobowitz, director of the professional responsibility and ethics program at the University of Miami School of Law, who teaches social media law. “Every ruling on social media these days is precedent-setting to a certain extent because everyone is struggling to still understand social media and how traditional legal concepts apply to situations that are innovative.”
Mattocks’ lawyer, Alex Brown of Tripp Scott in Fort Lauderdale, expressed disappointment with Cohn’s ruling and said he would file a notice of appeal.
“I respect him tremendously as a jurist, but it’s unfortunate that he ruled in the manner he did, especially in the summary judgment phase,” Brown said. “When there’s a genuine issue of fact, summary judgment should not be issued. And there were several issues of fact here.”
Brown called the ruling “a major blow” to the many people making a living off Facebook fan pages.
“Judge Cohn didn’t ascribe any value to these pages,” he said. “These people derive a lot of revenue from them.
BET was represented by a team of lawyers at Jenner & Block in Washington and Karen Stetson of GrayRobinson in Miami. They could not be reached for comment by deadline.