Lawsuit Over Twitter Account Goes Forward

Posted February 9, 2012 in Internet Law by Ada Kulesza

When an employee leaves a job, he hands over his company phone and empties his desk, but if he tries to take his customers with him, things can get litigious.

So how do you define his Twitter account?

A judge has ruled that a South Carolina-based company’s lawsuit against its former employee over this question can proceed. The suit calls a Twitter account just that – a customer list – and will set the precedent about who owns the Tweets.

The gadget website Phonedog is suing a former blogger, Noah Kravitz, claiming that when he changed his Twitter handle from @PhoneDog_Noah to @noahkravitz, he took 17,000 “customers” with him. In the suit the company values each follower at $2.50 a month, for eight months, totaling $340,000.

Kravitz stated that he’d left the company amicably and continued to promote Phonedog on his Twitter account. He started working for a competitor, and then sued Phonedog for a claim to 15 percent of the site’s ad revenue “because of his position as a vested partner, as well as back pay related to his position as a video review and blogger for the site,” the New York Times reports. Kravitz says the company filed its lawsuit as a retaliation.

In a statement Phonedog said, “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.”

In a counter-argument, the Atlantic magazine stated, “The idea that all 17,000 people who follow Kravitz were doing so because of PhoneDog is disingenuous at best.”


Whose Tweets? Our Tweets!

Attorney Henry J. Cittone

An intellectual property lawyer in New York City, Henry J. Cittone, said in the New York Times that the legal community has been waiting for this type of case because of the gaps and holes inherent in cyberspace law. In fact, you can file this particular suit under the new area of practice, “social media law.”

He said the case hinges on what the purpose of the account was when it was opened.

“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,” he said.

 If the suit goes in Phonedog’s favor, it will set a big precedent, essentially giving a monetary value to the number of followers a Tweeter has.

Attorney Enrico Shaefer

As reported when the lawsuit was announced, Kravitz and Phonedog should have exercised some foresight when the Twitter account in question was launched. Either the two parties should have agreed on the account’s purpose when it was opened, or the company should have asked for the account at the time of exit, said attorney Enrico Schaefer, founder of the communications firm Traverse Legal. He added that Phonedog made a mistake by letting the Twitter handle slip away from them, so it might be difficult for a judge to award $340,000, especially without solid accounting to back up their claim.

One judge thought Phonedog had a case solid enough to move forward, and with both sides sticking to their guns, this landmark case could make it to trial.

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