Who Owns a Twitter Account? A Lawsuit May Decide

Who Owns a Twitter Account? A Lawsuit May Decide

What is the value of a tweet? How much is a follower worth? Those are the questions that may be answered as an Oakland, CA company brings a lawsuit against a former employee.

John Biggs writes for The New York Times:

In base economic terms, the value of individual Twitter updates seems to be negligible; after all, what is a Twitter post but a few bits of data sent caroming through the Internet? But in a world where social media’s influence can mean the difference between a lucrative sale and another fruitless cold call, social media accounts at companies have taken on added significance.

The question is: Can a company cash in on, and claim ownership of, an employee’s social media account, and if so, what does that mean for workers who are increasingly posting to Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus during work hours?

October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer who resides in Oakland, quits his job at the popular mobile phone site, Phonedog.com. While at the company, Noah began writing on Twitter as “Phonedog_Noah”. Over time, he he attracted 17,000 followers. When he left, Noah claims, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for the occasional tweet about PhoneDog.

The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Noah said.

Noah began posting under the new handle of “NoahKravitz”, keeping all his followers under the new moniker. Eight months after he left the company, PhoneDog sued, claiming the Twitter list was a customer list. They were seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months. Total damages: $340,000.

PhoneDog Media declined to comment for the Times article except for this statement: “The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of PhoneDog Media L.L.C. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”

Noah says the lawsuit is retaliation for his claim to 15 percent of the site’s gross advertising revenue, which he says he’s entitled to as a vested partner. He says he is also owed back pay related to his position as a video reviewer and blogger for the site.

The lawsuit could have wide ramifications for more than just Noah and PhoneDog.

“This will establish precedent in the online world, as it relates to ownership of social media accounts,” said Henry J. Cittone, a lawyer in New York who litigates intellectual property disputes. “We’ve actually been waiting to see such a case as many of our clients are concerned about the ownership of social media accounts vis-á-vis their branding.”

“It all hinges on why the account was opened,” he said, “If it was to communicate with PhoneDog’s customers or build up new customers or prospects, then the account was opened on behalf of PhoneDog, not Mr. Kravitz. An added complexity is that PhoneDog contends Mr. Kravitz was just a contractor in the related partnership/employment case, thus weakening their trade secrets case, unless they can show he was contracted to create the feed.”

Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of Sree’s Social Media Guide, said smart companies let social media blossom where it may.

“It’s a terrible thing to say you have to leave your Twitter followers behind,” he said, “It sends a terrible signal to reporters and journalists who care about this, and this will make it less attractive to recruit the next round of people.”

He continued, saying this is the modern version of industries that had policies that required sales people to leave their Rolodexes behind, but said that these policies were as relevant to social media as Rolodexes are to the modern office. Social media accounts are, almost by definition, personal.

Noah says he’s confused, “They’re suing me for over a quarter of a million dollars,” he said. “From where I’m sitting I held up my end of the bargain.”