The ruling this week marks the end of a complex legal battle between US TV network Black Entertainment Television (BET) and a woman who created a fan page for one of its shows, eventually amassing 6.2 million likes. Interestingly, the ruling may set a precedent for brands wresting back control over fan pages or accounts that breach their copyright.
If anyone can be deemed to own the likes on a page, it is the individual users responsible for them.
The suit was brought by insurance agent Stacey Mattocks, who created a fan page for 'The Game', a US programme about the lives of professional footballers. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, the show was flagging on its home network, The CW, and was eventually dropped. Thanks to a social media campaign by Mattocks on her Facebook fan page and Twitter, the show was picked up by BET in 2011.
According to Mattocks' suit, a struggle emerged over who should control the page, which by that point had jumped from thousands of likes to millions, and was also credited with boosting the show's ratings.
Mattocks said BET made several attempts to persuade her to transfer ownership of the rights, initially offering her $30 (£18) an hour as a social media freelancer, then upping that to a contract paying up to $85,000 (£51,000) a year. Since that contract could be terminated at any time, Mattocks refused.
How much is a like?
Mattocks then entered into a "letter agreement" with BET, agreeing to share administrative rights to the page. However, Mattocks said she only agreed to this because Facebook had temporarily suspended her account after she refused to transfer ownership - something BET said was an accident.
BET also made an offer of $15,000 (£9,000) to buy the page outright – but Mattocks wanted $1.2m (£740,000). The network then made a final offer to make Mattocks a "social media specialist" for its scripted programming at more than $4,000 (£2,400) a month. Mattocks refused the offer and downgraded BET's access to the fan page, breaching her earlier agreement.
Finally, BET sent a cease-and-desist letter to Mattocks and takedown requests to Facebook and Twitter. That resulted in Facebook transferring all 6.million likes to a separate page created by BET, and Twitter shutting the account used by Mattocks to promote 'The Game'. The new official page from BET boasts more than seven million likes.
In response, Mattocks brought her suit, arguing that BET had deprived her of ad income by moving the likes across to a new page.
But US district judge James Cohns rejected her claims, stating that individual users owned their likes, and not page operators. He noted that Mattocks had also breached her agreement with BET.
"[Liking] a Facebook Page simply means that the user is expressing his or her enjoyment or approval of the content," he wrote. "At any time, moreover, the user is free to revoke the 'like' by clicking an 'unlike' button."
He said: "So if anyone can be deemed to own the 'likes' on a page, it is the individual users responsible for them."