Who Owns Your Twitter Account, You or Your Boss?

Posted January 4, 2012 in Internet Law by

The technology website Phonedog.com has sued former employee Noah Kravitz for $340,000 over the company twitter account, claiming Kravitz unlawfully took the account and its 17,000 followers with him when he left the company in 2010.

  • Dispute over who decided to create the account
  • Company values Twitter followers at $2.50 each per month
  • Corporate social media policies lag behind the times

 

A Tweet Too Far

Kravitz was the public face of Phonedog through the twitter account he created, @PhoneDog_Noah, either of his own volition or on the behalf of his employers, depending on who you believe.

In October 2010, he left the company took his 17,000 followers with him, changing the twitter handle to simply @noahkravitz. Phonedog says they asked for the account back; Kravitz claims they didn’t, and even asked him to continue tweeting on their behalf after he left. The account didn’t become an issue, it seems, until Kravitz sued the company over back pay last spring, and Phonedog responded with a lawsuit of its own.

Now the dispute has put an unprecedented question in front of the courts: When dealing with social media, what is the line between a personal and company account, and how do you determine who owns the contacts?

 

My Tweet or Your Tweet?

Attorney Enrico Schaefer

“It is a fascinating set of facts,” says attorney Enrico Schaefer, founder of Internet and communications firm Traverse Legal. In a case that would be black and white if the Twitter account in question had been comprised only of the company name, or if an iron-clad social media policy had been in place, the question of whether Kravitz created and promoted the account of his own accord or on behalf of the company is crucial.

The lawsuit brings up three legal issues, says Schaefer: Trademark, account ownership and copyright. “If that twitter account is pushing the company’s trademark, who owns it may be less relevant than the infringement,” he says. “Typically the company is going to win that battle.”

Since Kravitz changed the account to exclude the Phonedog name, the issue remains murky, as does the matter of ownership in this case. “Who registered the account, and was it on his own behalf, or on behalf of the company?” the lawyer asks.

Finally, copyright, or ownership of the words and sentences typed into the tweets, would also belong to the company if the employee was paid to create them. However, if Kravitz can argue that many of his tweets were of a personal nature, on his own time, he could make a case to defend himself.

 

How Much Is That Tweet in the Window?

A fascinating tangential issue that arose with the lawsuit was Phonedog’s valuation of each of Kravitz’s 17,000 twitter followers at $2.50 per month, for eight months, resulting in the $340,000 figure. Phonedog cited “industry standards,” but the number provoked disbelief around the web. “I’m rich at last,” joked the Guardian’s Paul Carr of his 10,000 followers. Several of Kravitz’s followers expressed mock concern that they might have to pay up to keep reading his tweets. But the uproar demands the question, how much is a follower really worth?

Honestly, nobody knows. “This is completely new, untrodden territory,” Schaefer says. “It’s unclear what those values may be. Unlike real property where there are markets and accepted values and protocols for valuing, there’s none of that in Internet space.” If a judge finds that Phonedog does own the account, will the $340,000 stand? Unlikely, without some rock-solid accounting to back it up. “The company’s going to have a hard time getting that past a judge,” Schaefer says.

 

Case Likely To Spark New Policies

© is the copyright symbol in a copyright notice

Kravitz’s case has garnered so much attention because it has vast implications across the country, Schaeffer says. “This happens all the time,” the lawyer explains. “You’ve got employees who are blogging. A lot of times the employee is the one who has a technology background and skill set in developing content and social media. They’re the instigator. But they do it on behalf of the company.”

His firm regularly sees clients who need employee contracts reviewed for inventions, copyrights, trademarks and account access, in an area of practice that has been evolving hand-in-hand with new technology. Many companies simply don’t have good policies in place yet, something that is likely to change in the fallout from the Phonedog suit.

The lawsuit and rancor could have been avoided if Phonedog had an enforceable social media policy in place, or at least made sure they took the account from Kravitz when he left. “The company should have demanded the account been provided at the time of exit,” Schaefer says.

“Employers need to make sure they’ve gotten all these things battened down on front end, or at least on termination of the employee,” says Schaefer. “If you allow your brand to go out there, you’re making a huge mistake. You never want anyone speaking on behalf of your brand except your company.”

Kravitz himself muses philosophically on the implications of the mess he’s found himself in over at his new home on TechnoBuffalo, writing, “What was once about a great partnership gone bad has transformed into a matter that literally could write the laws that govern how tens of millions of people communicate with one another.”

 

Aaron Kase is a news reporter for Lawyers.com.

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