Last week I co-hosted an event with the folks from Levensohn Venture Partners on corporate blogging. Our guests were Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, who talked about their book Naked Conversations and about the impact of blogging on the corporate world. We invited entrepreneurs from the August and Levensohn portfolio companies to the event, as well as some friends of our respective firms who were particularly interested in the evolution of blogging as a marketing medium. The conversation was an enjoyable one. And Shel and Robert were incredibly gracious, even when I accused them of being "full of shit" (which, of course, I meant only in the most positive sense of the phrase). But the content of the evening's conversation is not what's presently on my mind. Robert Scoble himself is.
Robert Scoble is a gregarious, affable guy. He enjoys himself and, in return, he makes those around him enjoy themselves as well. He's a voracious reader and a voracious writer. And, as a result of all of those traits, has become one of the first celebrities of the blogsphere. Robert's blog, Scobleizer, is read by hundreds of thousands of people. It has the capacity to drive huge traffic to the web properties he cites. But, more importantly, for the longest time, Robert Scoble's blog has been synonymous with "The Microsoft Blog." In fact, search Google for "Scobleizer" and what comes up is "Scobleizer: Microsoft Geek Blogger." Robert Scoble was, for all intents and purposes, the Microsoft blogger.
About a week ago that all changed. Robert Scoble left Microsoft and joined a new media startup called PodTech. He took with him his celebrity. He took with him his authority. And he took with him Scobleizer, his blog.
Ever since Scoble left Microsoft, I've been thinking about the question of who owns Scobleizer. After all, didn't Robert write Scobleizer during work hours, using Microsoft's computers? In fact, wasn't it Robert's job at Microsoft to write Scobleizer? Didn't Microsoft pay him thousands of dollars in salary, and thousands more in travel expenses, to represent Microsoft in the blogging world and to do so, at least in part, by writing Scobleizer?
While I don't have Microsoft's agreement handy, here's some standard language from a form employment agreement with regard to the creation of copyrighted works:
Assignment of Intellectual Property. I agree that I will promptly make full written disclosure to the Company, will hold in trust for the sole right and benefit of the Company, and hereby assign to the Company, or its designee, all my right, title, and interest in and to any original works of authorship, inventions, concepts, improvements or trade secrets, whether or not patentable or registrable under copyright or similar laws, which I may solely or jointly conceive or develop or reduce to practice, or cause to be conceived or developed or reduced to practice, during the period of time I am in the service of the Company (collectively referred to as "Intellectual Property") and which (i) are developed using the equipment, supplies, facilities or Confidential Information of the Company, (ii) result from or are suggested by work performed by me for the Company, or (iii) relate to the business, or to the actual or demonstrably anticipated research or development of the Company. The Intellectual Property will be the sole and exclusive property of the Company. I further acknowledge that all original works of authorship which are made by me (solely or jointly with others) within the scope of and during the period of my Relationship with the Company and which are protectable by copyright are "works made for hire," as that term is defined in the United States Copyright Act.
I imagine that Microsoft's employment agreement has similar language. It says, in essence (for the non-lawyers out there), that anything an employee writes (1) while employed by the employer, (2) using the employers equipment, supplies and facilities, and (3) related to the business of the employer, is owned by the employer. It makes perfectly good sense and seems pretty squarely to apply to Scobleizer. (For those of you out there saying to yourselves, "isn't there an exception when an employee had developed the intellectual property prior to joining a company?," that is certainly true but would only apply to the portions of Scobleizer written before Robert joined Microsoft.) So doesn't Microsoft own Scobleizer?
I raise the question of who owns Scobleizer, not because I think that Microsoft should enforce its rights in Scobleizer, but because I think that it raises an important question about corporate blogging. If corporate blogging is about allowing employees to express their genuine voices and to attract audiences for the company's products by virtue of that blogger's own voice and message, won't companies continuously face the problem that the "good will" that comes from corporate blogging will attach to the individual bloggers rather than the corporation. I am willing to guess that PodTech paid mightily for the good will that Robert Scoble brought with him to his new company.
The challenge for corporations is that the standard wisdom when it comes to corporate blogging is to empower individuals to speak for your company. Corporations are urged to allow employees and executives alike to speak for the corporation in their own non-scripted way. This is precisely what Robert and Shel promote in Naked Conversations, and reiterated at the August/Levensohn dinner last week. Yet, as can be seen in the "who owns Scobleizer?" quagmire, allowing employees to speak on the company's behalf in a way that promotes the blogger at least as much as it promotes the company, can be perilous. Corporations may spend thousands of dollars to establish credibility, only to see that credibility walk out the door.
So was it really in Microsoft's interest to pay Robert Scoble thousands of dollars to write Scobleizer, only to have him take it with him when he left the company? Probably. Scoble made great strides in humanizing an otherwise reviled corporation. But as we continue to evolve our think about blogging as a corporate marketing medium, it will be important for companies to think carefully about who can blog on the company's behalf and in what manner. Wouldn't Microsoft rather have a Microsoftizer than a Scobleizer next time around? It is time for executives to think more strategically about blogging and its long term effects on their business and competition in the marketplace. In the mean time, it may be time for me to start Hornikizer: August Capital's Freak Blogger.