Posted November 11, 2011 4:35 pm by with 5 comments

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When you leave a company, it’s expected that you’ll turn in your keys, the password to your computer and any proprietary information you might be carrying around.

But what about your Twitter account? In the case of an employee whose job it is to update the company Twitter, it’s an easy call. It’s not so easy when you’re talking about journalists or other Tweeters who blur the line between business and personal.

Such a case is currently being tested in court, but it’s not going so well for either side. The case in question is between PhoneDog and Noah Kravitz, who used to work for them as a reporter. The object of desire is a Twitter account with 17,000 followers formerly known as @PhoneDog_Noah.

When Noah left PhoneDog, he changed the name on the Twitter account and kept on posting for himself. PhoneDog sued, claiming that they own the rights to the account and the password is a “trade secret” which Kravitz was obligated to divulge when he left the company.

The court agrees, sort of. They had an option to dismiss the case outright, but they didn’t. Chief Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James declared that both sides of the case had merit and she didn’t have enough information to proceed. You can read the legalese here, if you’re so inclined.

Before we go any further, let’s relish in the fact that ten years ago the only way a judge would say the word Tweet was if it was a case about bird smuggling. Oh, the times they are a changin’ and that means the law has some catching up to do. Until it does, business owners need to take steps to protect themselves.

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What to do if. . .

If you have employees or contractors who update social media on your behalf, be sure you have not just the passwords to the accounts, but in the case of Facebook, that you’re an admin on your pages.

If you have employees that combine personal and work Tweets (as I do on my own account), I’d say you’re out of luck. Consider every Tweet they sent about your company a gift and let it go.

On the Tweeter side, it’s a tough call. I’ve been there. I built up a Twitter account that was named for a blog I wrote but didn’t own. When the company shut down the blog, I mourned the loss of all those followers and it wasn’t until months later that I realized my mistake. I could have (should have?) changed the name on the Twitter and kept those followers for myself. After all, they came because I brought them in, right? Still, it did feel a little like stealing. The only saving grace here was that the company in question had no interest in the Twitter account. I know now that they made a big mistake.

PhoneDog has attempted to quantify their loss by saying that each of Kravitz’s followers is worth $2.50 per month, making their claim worth $340,000.  Even the court rolled its eyes at the idea that they’ve been financially injured by the loss. No court is going to award them that much money for a Twitter account.

On the other hand, a healthy Twitter account is a valuable asset. In the end, I’d bet the court is going to make Kravitz hand over the keys. I’d also bet that in another twenty years, social media accounts will be quantifiable assets truly worth fighting over.

  • Johnny Ramirez

    This whole case is bs! I follow Noah and when he quit PhoneDog he said where to follow him. @noahkravitz! PhoneDog even published it! They said “go follow him @noahkravitz” and now they’re suing him? That sucks!

    Check this out:

    • Michael Selvidge

      Agree with Johnny. Total BS.

      See this post from VentureBeat, which uncovered an earlier suit that Noah placed against Phonedog:

      So Phonedog made up this twitter issue (even though they were ok with it originally) just because they wanted to get back at Noah for the other suit.

      Given the fact that Noah used his “Phonedog” Twitter account to talk about non-work related things and the smoking gun that Johnny links to above, in my (admittedly biased) legal opinion, there is NO WAY the courts will side with Phonedog ultimately.

      (disclosure: I know Noah Kravitz personally, and have worked with him professionally).

  • John Hampton

    In regards to you stating “After all, they came because I brought them in, right?” That is ridiculous, you were doing a job for the blog whether paid or not and they are now assets of that company. I agree that if you had given them a location to follow u personally then they have the choice between you or the brand.

  • When a business creates a social profile, this is one of the most important things to think about–who is going to run it? If you use an employee’s name to build your social network, you have to plan ahead for what happens to that account when they leave. If you brand is wrapped up in a specific employee, it leaves you vulnerable.

    • I agree with Nick. This is something that should be discussed BEFORE the account is created and I am sure after this law suit businesses will incorporate into their over all marketing plan or employee manual. Time to play catch-up once again!