Who Owns a Company Twitter Account?

» Posted in News & Resources

There’s an interesting case pending in the Northern District of California Federal Court – PhoneDog v. Kravitz – that highlights two hot issues: 1) how important social media has become in the business world; and 2) what a business should do to protect their valued social media contacts.

Here’s the background: While an employee at PhoneDog, Kravitz used a PhoneDog Twitter account (@PhoneDog_Noah) to send out information on behalf of the company and promote the company’s services.  After leaving PhoneDog, Kravitz continued tweeting under the PhoneDog Twitter handle on behalf of his new employer.   Later, he changed his handle to delete the reference to PhoneDog (@noahkravitz), but he still kept the roughly 17,000 Twitter account followers he had collected as a PhoneDog employee.

PhoneDog sued Kravitz, claiming he stole PhoneDog trade secrets and improperly retained company property, namely the use of the PhoneDog handle and the Twitter account’s followers.  Also, PhoneDog’s complaint put a specific monetary value on Twitter followers. Relying on “industry standards,” the company said that Kravitz owes it $2.50 per follower, or approximately $42,500 per month.

Kravitz sought to dismiss some of PhoneDog’s claims but the court denied that motion and the case will now slog forward in litigation.  You can bet many businesses are following this one to see if PhoneDog prevails and how much, if any, damages are awarded. PhoneDog has been somewhat aggressive about asserting novel claims in order to protect its social media investment, and the reaction among bloggers and others in the social media community has been negative (there is a website to “save Noah Kravitz”).   However, in a statement to the New York Times the company explained why it brought the lawsuit: “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 LLC.”

Fair enough.  A company can spend a considerable amount of its resources developing a social media following and does not want an ex-employee to unfairly gain the benefit of those company expenditures.  It does not seem unreasonable for a company to want to protect that investment.  But here’s the takeaway:  If a company wants to establish a stronger basis to protect its social media, then it should have a carefully crafted Social Media Policy.  Such a Policy should include a clear statement that the company owns and controls all social media accounts and that employees have no right to use those accounts, or any of the information imbedded within, for their own benefit.  A good policy, well drafted and clear, can go a long way to avoiding an expensive and negative-publicity lawsuit.

PhoneDog v. Kravitz, No. C 11-03474 MEJ (N.D. Cal.)