To keep you alert, here is a cautionary tale to end the year on. It involves an employee, the Twitter account they kept while working for a company, an “agreement” and the logical end to all things uncertain, a lawsuit.
The New York Times tells us about Noah Kravitz formerly of Phonedog.com
The question is: 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.
Seems innocent and friendly enough (although I don’t get the request and the acceptance of the request to continue to post occasionally for the company, do you? The gist is that the employee had amassed a significant following using his name and his employer’s name but it seems as if the lines had been blurred as well since Mr. Kravitz felt that his following was indeed his and initially, at least, his former employer was fine with that. Then …
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.
Ouch. As is always the case in instances like this there are two sides of the story.
PhoneDog Media declined to comment for this article except for this statement: “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 L.L.C. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”
Now we are not here to argue the law of this case. There is little precedent to go on anyway as this entire area of law is barely old enough to be considered its own space yet. What needs to be considered by readers of Marketing Pilgrim is that no matter if you are a company allowing employees to use Twitter on your behalf or you are an employee developing a following using your company as the springboard you better have thought this through completely.
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Handshake agreements and informal “Oh sure it’s no problem!” reassurances aren’t worth much in this space. Consider the very real possibility of that person that you as an employee made that handshake agreement with leaving the company and his / her replacement not giving a rip about what the previous person “promised you”.
I would hate to see the law squeeze a lot of the fun out of social media in the business space but it is quickly becoming apparent that informal arrangements are risky. Are you willing to take that risk?
What is your thought about a case like this one? Who is ultimately in control of this account in your non-legal opinion? Plenty to ponder as we wind down 2011 and head into the rapidly changing future of social media and business.