Who Owns Your Company's Twitter Followers?

14 May 2012 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
More and more companies are turning to social media for marketing, and in some cases are creating accounts on Twitter.com, a social networking service which allows a use to send updates or “tweets” of 140 characters or less to its “followers,” people who have subscribed to that user’s content (even Foley & Lardner LLP has its own Twitter presence, which can be found at: http://twitter.com/#!/FoleyandLardner. As corporate use of social media tools grows, so do the inevitable issues with managing employees’ use of these tools. A case going forward in California right now illustrates a potential problem with the corporate use of Twitter: what happens when the employee who created and managed a Twitter account on behalf of the company leaves and takes the Twitter account and its followers with him?

In PhoneDog LLC v. Kravitz, the employee created a Twitter account to provide reviews of cellular phones as part of his job with PhoneDog, a provider of mobile device news and reviews. The Twitter account was called “@phonedog_noah” (all Twitter account names begin with the @ symbol). The Defendant amassed 17,000 Twitter followers at this account. When he left PhoneDog, he simply changed the user name of the account to @noahkravitz and kept using it, broadcasting new content to the 17,000 people who had begun following him while he worked at PhoneDog. This content was not related to PhoneDog and did not link back to its site. In fact, PhoneDog alleged he was using the Twitter account to disparage it. PhoneDog sued him for misappropriation of trade secrets related to the Twitter account, as well as interfering with its business relationships with its Twitter followers. PhoneDog claims its Twitter followers can be valued at $2.50 per month per follower and that as a result of Kravitz taking the Twitter feed, followers no longer clicked on links to its site, which caused its advertising revenue to decrease. This case is ongoing, and the court declined to dismiss the action, meaning that if PhoneDog can prove its claims, and its damages, it may be able to recover against Kravitz for his use of the Twitter account after his departure from PhoneDog.

The PhoneDog case illustrates the need for clear corporate social media policies. If your company has a Twitter account that one employee maintains, your policies should account for what will happen to that account should the employee leave. Clearly stated policies which account for the possibility of account turnover if needed will help protect the social media assets your company has developed.
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