A Dispute Over Who Owns a Twitter Account Goes to Court

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.

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.

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.”

Mr. Kravitz said the lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court in the Northern District of California, was in retaliation for his claim to 15 percent of the site’s gross advertising revenue because of his position as a vested partner, as well as back pay related to his position as a video reviewer and blogger for the site.

The lawsuit, though, could have broader ramifications than its effect on Mr. Kravitz and the company.

“This will establish precedent in the online world, as it relates to ownership of social media accounts,” said Henry J. Cittone, a lawyer in New York who litigates intellectual property disputes. “We’ve actually been waiting to see such a case as many of our clients are concerned about the ownership of social media accounts vis-á-vis their branding.”

Mr. Cittone added that a particularly important wrinkle is what value the court might set on the worth of one Twitter follower to a media company, saying the price set could affect future cases involving ownership of social media.

“It all hinges on why the account was opened,” he said.

“If it was to communicate with PhoneDog’s customers or build up new customers or prospects, then the account was opened on behalf of PhoneDog, not Mr. Kravitz. An added complexity is that PhoneDog contends Mr. Kravitz was just a contractor in the related partnership/employment case, thus weakening their trade secrets case, unless they can show he was contracted to create the feed.”

These situations are likely to arise more often as social media tools like Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook continue to become a way for company representatives and customer service employees to interact with fans and irate customers.

JetBlue, for example, often answers customer queries via Twitter, although its official policy is to not respond to “formal complaints” on Twitter.

Other issues may arise when companies hire popular Twitter users partly because of their social media presence. For example, Samsung Electronics hired the outspoken blogger Philip Berne to review phones for the company internally.

Mr. Berne uses his personal Twitter account but often posts explicitly about Samsung products and his opinions on the phones he has tested. He cleared his Twitter account with the Samsung public relations department, he said, and he owns it.

“Their stance was that I am entitled to have and express an opinion, but I am not a Samsung representative, and I should make it clear that any opinions are my own and not those of my employer,” Mr. Berne said. In general, social media experts advise companies to tread with caution when it comes to account ownership.

Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of Sree’s Social Media Guide, said smart companies let social media blossom where it may.

“It’s a terrible thing to say you have to leave your Twitter followers behind,” he said, talking specifically about media companies that may employ popular Twitter writers. “It sends a terrible signal to reporters and journalists who care about this, and this will make it less attractive to recruit the next round of people.”

He said that many industries had policies that required sales staff to leave their Rolodexes behind, but that these policies were as relevant to social media as Rolodexes are to the modern office. After all, social media accounts are, almost by definition, personal.

He also said that the average Twitter account had less clout than many might think.

“The value of the individual users is very hard to quantify,” he said. “It’s dangerous to overestimate the value of an account to an organization and underestimate what it means for an individual.”

Mr. Kravitz said he was confused.

“They’re suing me for over a quarter of a million dollars,” he said. “From where I’m sitting I held up my end of the bargain.”

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