Who owns your Twitter account? Check out this lawsuit

A Web site is suing a former employee for allegedly "misappropriating" a personal Twitter account and its 17,000 followers.

David Hamilton Assistant Managing Editor, CNET News
David Hamilton is the assistant managing editor of CNET News. He has been writing and editing business and tech coverage for about two decades -- the majority of that at the Wall Street Journal in both Tokyo and San Francisco. He is a two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club award and has written for numerous magazines and blogs, including Slate, Science, VentureBeat, CBS Interactive's BNET, California Lawyer and the New Republic.
David Hamilton
2 min read

Who really owns your Twitter account, anyway?[*] That's the question at the heart of a lawsuit that could redefine the right of employers to seize and make use of employees' social-media accounts.

[*]OK, technically the answer is, "Twitter." But it's obviously more complicated than that.

For four years, writer Noah Kravitz produced reviews and video blogs for the mobile-phone site phonedog.com. During the same period, he also posted on Twitter under the handle @PhoneDog_Noah, eventually gathering 17,000 followers. When Kravitz left PhoneDog in October 2010, he changed his Twitter handle to @noahkravitz and continued using the account--with PhoneDog's blessing, he asserts. (More than a year later, @noahkravitz has 22,158 followers.)

PhoneDog, however, apparently had second thoughts. Eight months after Kravitz left ("on good terms," he told the NYT), PhoneDog sued him, claiming that Kravitz's Twitter followers represented a customer list, that Kravitz had failed to relinquish the Twitter account when asked, and that he had therefore misappropriated trade secrets and interfered with PhoneDog's business to the tune of $340,000--$2.50 per follower per month.

PhoneDog did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment, and it remains anything but clear just how it assigned that sort of value to Kravitz's Twitter followers. Especially given how few people actually click on links in tweets--often estimated at somewhere between 1 percent and 4 percent of followers.

Still, it's clear that these sorts of economic considerations--however calculated--will continue to loom large for companies that encourage employees to use social-media tools to reach customers and audiences. And the potential conflict looms largest in cases where employees tap their personal social-media networks on their employer's behalf.

In a statement provided to the Times, PhoneDog asserted that it was the company--no Kravitz--that invested in creating the Twitter following.

"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.," PhoneDog said. "We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands."