Some say another new technology (Twitter) is creating novel legal questions. Is it really? Or are we just getting a wake up call to apply standard legal procedures to a new medium?
John Biggs uncovers the central legal issue concerning Twitter:
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?
A lawsuit filed in July could provide some answers.
In October 2010, Noah Kravitz, a writer who lives in Oakland, Calif., quit his job at a popular mobile phone site, Phonedog.com, after nearly four years. The site has two parts — an e-commerce wing, which sells phones, and a blog.
While at the company, Mr. Kravitz, 38, began writing on Twitter under the name Phonedog_Noah, and over time, had amassed 17,000 followers. When he left, he said, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for posting occasionally.
The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Mr. Kravitz said by telephone.
And so he began writing as NoahKravitz, keeping all his followers under that new handle. But eight months after Mr. Kravitz left the company, PhoneDog sued, saying the Twitter list was a customer list, and seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000.
Brian Ries writes in the Daily Beast:
It wasn’t too long ago when hastily departing employees were denied the chance to grab Rolodexes from atop their desks. Goodbyes were brief. Doors were held open…now that network exists in social media, where a friend in real life is fan on the Web is a business contact to be sold to and is, some argue, a trade secret.
Sounds like a pretty straightforward story of David vs. Goliath, huh? Another little guy getting worked over by “the Man.”
Well, that’s not quite the case and this is another opportunity for us all to take a moment to pause and flat out love the greatest legal system the world has ever seen. Yes, indeed, there are two sides to this story, like every other legal dispute. Here is what the Man, aka Phone Dog has to say:
As many of you may have recently heard, PhoneDog has been in a legal dispute with a former editor of ours, Noah Kravitz. Not knowing the full story, some are quick to paint PhoneDog in an unfavorable light. Although we have tried repeatedly to settle the dispute privately, the recent media coverage regarding our lawsuit against Noah has made it clear that we need to provide you, our fans, with the facts and why we’ve been essentially forced into this position…
Shortly after Noah left the company, we found that Noah’s intentions had changed. Whatever his motives, he began publishing content for other tech publishers while still being paid by PhoneDog, thereby going against the terms we agreed to prior to his departure. In addition, he was promoting the competitors’ content to the Twitter account we clearly had and have rights to…
PhoneDog was started by two guys interested in the web and technology in general, and to this day we are a small group of passionate mobile tech enthusiasts.
My still pretty uneducated guess is that this case will settle. Most likely, Twitter accounts (and the followers of them) will be governed by contracts, as are other elements of our relationships with our employers. The data on our company-owned computers is the property of the company, as is the fruit of our labor that is defined as “work for hire” in our employment agreements.
This probably comes down to a wake up call for companies to think up-front about Twitter as a marketing asset, and spell out explicitly what the rules are for employees and contractors in their contracts and employee handbook.
- Who owns your Twitter followers? Maybe not you (management.fortune.cnn.com)
- Do you own your social profile? (liberatemedia.com)
- Noah Kravitz sued by former bosses for taking Twitter followers with him (dailymail.co.uk)
- Company seeks thousands of dollars from former employee for his Twitter followers (mercurynews.com)
- Company sues ex-employee for his Twitter followers (guardian.co.uk)