Friday, February 3, 2012

Does your employer own your Twitter account?

PhoneDog sues its former worker for $340,000 of Twitter followers

SAN DIEGO - On January 30, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James (pictured) of the Northern District of California has allowed PhoneDog v. Kravitz, a Twitter account ownership case, to proceed.

Plaintiff PhoneDog, a popular mobile device and app review site, is suing Noah Kravitz, a writer from Oakland, Calif., for taking 17,000 Twitter followers with him when he quit working at PhoneDog. While Mr. Kravitz, 38, was still working for the company, he had acquired 17,000 Twitter followers when he started to tweet under the name PhoneDog_Noah, a hybrid between the company name and his personal name. He said that PhoneDog allowed him to keep the Twitter account even after he had left the job, in exchange for tweeting occasionally.

Nevertheless, after Mr. Kravitz went to work for a competitor, PhoneDog filed a lawsuit for misappropriation of trade secrets, conversion, interference with prospective economic advantage and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage. Plaintiff PhoneDog alleged the Twitter followers are a customer list, worth $340,000 in damages ($2.50 a month per follower for eight months of access).

The case might have some precedential value by establishing key boundaries as to the ownership and value of social media accounts. PhoneDog cited “industry standards” value Twitter followers at $2.50 per month each but in reality there are no clear legal guidelines as to the ownership and value of social media accounts such as Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook. Currently, those issues are largely resolved by importing analogies from related areas of law and on a contractual basis, pursuant to whatever the parties had agreed to before the dispute. Difficulties such as those in PhoneDog v. Kravitz arise when the parties do not have any sort of a written agreement as to the social media accounts. To prevent exactly these and other sorts of misunderstandings, I advise companies to implement social media policies.