The answer to this question is far from clear, but is about to be ruled on by the courts. A recent article by The New York Times, A Dispute Over the Twitter Account Goes to Court, by John Biggs (http://nyti.ms/tCivG9) highlighted an interesting legal development. Phonedog Media L.L.C. sued his former employee, Noah Kravitz, over the ownership of the NoahKravitz Twitter account. Mr. Kravitz started tweeting under the name Phonedog_Noah while being employed by Phonedog Media L.L.C. Upon his departure, the company owner allegedly let him keep the Twitter account in exchange for occasional postings. Mr. Kravitz switched the name of the account to NoahKravitz and continued tweeting, increasing the number of followers from 17,000 to 20,000. However, eight months later, the company sued Mr. Kravitz, claiming that the twitter followers list was its customer list. The company also asked for damages of $2.50 per month per follower for eight months, totaling $340,000.
Businesses use social media to increase awareness of their brands and to attract new customers. However, it is not always clear who owns the Twitter account absent a written agreement. If an employee tweets during the work day, does it mean that his or her Twitter account is owned by the employer? Can the employer restrict/monitor what the employee tweets about during the work hours? Also, how does one determine the value of a Twitter account and the value of the number of the followers the account has?
Much depends on what the employee tweets about and whether the employee’s responsibilities include establishing and maintaining social media presence on behalf of the employer. Also, one needs to examine the purpose of the social media account. Was it opened upon the request by the company management? Did the company use it to announce various sales, promotions and company news?
In light of this case, regardless of the outcome, business owners should remember to clearly establish the ownership of social media accounts. This can be done through company policies and employment agreements. It is possible that Noah Kravitz’s predicament could have been avoided if he signed a separation agreement with Phonedog Media L.L.C. upon his departure that transferred and assigned any and all Phonedog’s rights in the Twitter account to Mr. Kravitz. Perhaps then it would not have turned into “he said, she said” battle that ended up in court.