In the wake of a lawsuit that sees a company suing a former employee for maintaining ownership of the company's 17,000 Twitter followers, a number of experts are suggesting ways in which companies can keep it from happening to them.
Different parties have different viewpoints as to what actually happened (including the company itself), but here is the way Chris McDonough describes the sequence of events in Intellectual Property Brief: "Noah Kravitz, an employee of Phonedog.com, began Tweeting under the handle Phonedog_Noah during his time at the company and acquired 17,000 followers. After four years, he left the company, and with his employer’s permission changed his handle to simply Noah_Kravitz, with the understanding that he would “tweet on their behalf from time to time”. Eight months later, Kravitz became involved in a legal scuffle regarding his claim for back pay and the profits he was entitled to as a vested partner. Phonedog, in what was apparently a retaliatory move, sued over the Twitter account, claiming the 17,000 followers were effectively a “customer list” that Noah had improperly taken."
Phonedog is asking for $2.50 per follower per month, which amounts to some $340,000. Aside from the interesting question of how much a Twitter follower is worth, there is also the issue in intellectual property terms of who owns the names, which is likely to be decided in court.
This isn't the first time such an incident has happened; Forbes contributor Peter Himler describes other examples, such as high-profile social media departures from Politico and Ford Motor Co., while Ruth McCambridge in Nonprofit Quarterly talks about a similar example with Tea Party Patriots. For that matter, the case is reminscent of the suit between InfoWorld and Mark Stephens in the late 1990s, when, after he was fired from the company, he continued writing in other places under the alter ego "Robert X. Cringely," which had been an in-house pseudonym at InfoWorld.
Regardless of how the lawsuit itself turns out, there's several recommendations to keep it from happening to you.
- Make it clear whether the Twitter handle is the company or the individual. Notes Tim Berry of Palo Alto Software in Business Insider, "What I see is one huge mistake: the account name: “@phonedog_noah.” It’s half company, half personal. If he’d been tweeting as “@NoahKravitz” then his ownership would have been clear: his name, his followers, his account. Or if he’d been tweeting as “@PhoneDog” then it would have been equally clear: company name, company account, company followers. Unfortunately, “@phonedog_noah” is a bit of both. Ambiguity, here we come."
- Put agreements with company Tweeters in writing, including that the followers list is confidential and proprietary, writes Michelle Sherman on the Social Media Law Blog. "PhoneDog has some formidable hurdles to prevailing on its remaining claims," she says. "For example, PhoneDog alleges that it took reasonable measures to protect the confidential information that it loosely describes as the Twitter account password and "many details of PhoneDog's relationships with its users that are not generally known or readily accessible to the public or PhoneDog's competitors." However, PhoneDog does not allege that it had an employment agreement or confidentiality agreement with Kravitz that would have protected this information, or clearly stated that this information should be treated as confidential, proprietary information."
- Companies may have to start expanding their non-compete clauses to include social media, though people who leave a company should be able to take their Twitter followers with them, says Wendy Soucie, a social media consultant in Lodi, Wis., and president of the Social Media Club of Madison.