Stay away from my friends: When is a business’s social media friend list a trade secret?

In General, Litigation, Social Media by Coolidge Wall

The general rule in Ohio is that for a customer list to be a trade secret, it has to be… a secret. Usually this means that the customer list is stored in a locked drawer or a password-protected server that only a few trusted people can access.

But with the emergence of social media, a friend list may be as or more important than a traditional customer list. But can a business’s friend list be a trade secret just like a customer list?

Christou v. Beatport, L.L.C., No. 10-cv-02912-RBJ-KMT, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34307 (D. Colo. 2012) raised this very issue. Christou owned several nightclubs in Denver that featured electronic house music. Christou employed Bradley Roulier as his talent scout and performance coordinator. Roulier had access to the friend lists.

The relationship between Christou and Roulier soured and Roulier left Christou’s nightclub empire to form a competing music business called Beatport. As former employees sometimes do, Roulier left with information that Christou believed to be trade secrets, including the friend lists.

Christou sued Roulier and Beatport, claiming the friend lists were trade secrets. Beatport moved to dismiss, arguing that the friend lists could not be trade secrets as anyone who accessed Christou’s social media pages could see who Christou’s friend are.

But the court found that the names themselves, readily available to the public, were not the important factor. Rather, by friending a business, the business gained access to the friend’s interests and preferences, contact information, and a built-in means of contact. This information cannot be obtained from outside sources. The court found that Christou could continue the lawsuit against Beatport because the friend lists could plausibly be trade secrets.

The court did not address whether the individual user’s profile is private or public. Facebook in particular has made headlines when privacy settings changed automatically and made formerly private content public. If a user made his/her content public, including the interests and preferences that could be valuable to a business, would that negate the court’s conclusion that the information requires protection because it cannot be obtained elsewhere? Can something be a trade secret when the business cannot control whether the very thing it desires to protect is actually a secret.

On the other hand, a friend list is greater than the sum of its parts. Having lists of thousands of people who have self-identified themselves as potential customers is immensely valuable. In Christou, the friend lists contained thousands of people, some of whom identified favorite DJs, songs, artists, etc., which would help Christou or Beatport learn what music was trending with their primary audience. Even if the customers all made their profiles public, which would make their contact and preference information just as available to Beatport as to Christou, Beatport would have to use its resources to find the profiles. Having a list of those people would save time and money, a fact that might persuade a judge that regardless of whether the profiles are public or private, the information is a trade secret.

Few, if any, courts have resolved these questions. As the court in Christou stated, whether a friend list is a protectable trade secret is an issue of first impression in federal court. Likewise, Ohio courts have not decided this issue. But we are likely to see more litigation on this issue, including the final decision in Christou.

The implication from the court’s decision is that under the right circumstances, a friend list might be a trade secret. Friend lists have business value and have to be treated that way. Make it clear that you do not want anyone other than your people talking to your friends. If your actions do not tell your competition to stay away from your friends, the competition will try to replace you as your friends’ BFF in the industry.