IT Employment

Who owns your Twitter account?

Another court case arises over who owns an ex-employee's Twitter account.

In another case of the court cases not keeping up with technology, a man is being sued by his former company for continuing to use his Twitter account, which was created when he was with the company.

Here's the lowdown: PhoneDog has brought suit against ex-worker Noah Kravitz, claiming the @PhoneDog_Noah account that Kravitz used was the company's. And, the company says, the (roughly) 17,000 followers of the account are worth $2.50 a month, meaning that Kravitz owes the firm $340,000 for using the account for a period of eight months after he stopped working for PhoneDog.

Kravitz questions the monthly amount they arrived at and raises interesting arguments about account "ownership" and confidential company information. "Neither the account nor any of its followers are properties of PhoneDog," he states in a court document. "The account itself is the exclusive property of Twitter, not PhoneDog. The account's followers, on the other hand, are humans and ... humans in the United States are not 'property' and cannot be owned."

Interesting argument. What do you think?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

21 comments
mkuribay
mkuribay

I would like to see this case from three different standpoints. Professionalism: Each of us have at least two different personalities (or profiles) ??? one personal profile used for contact with family, friends, and people related to us with whom we share ideas not related to work, and one professional, used in our work relations: clients, suppliers, work partners. Colleagues at work in many cases may fall in first category. But we must be able to clearly separate the two categories and do not mix up messages between them, e.g. by creating different accounts in Twitter or any other social networking tool and properly identifying them in order that a client and friend can distinguish who, the professional you or the personal you sent him a message. We can, for example, have a profile related to contacts with our church relations. Did Noah separate his profiles? From the same standpoint a company should have in place a policy or a code of conduct ruling among other subjects, on internet use by its workers, and enforce the application of this policy. A good company, where we would like to work, will be taking care of teaching, in some way, its employees, in particular the novice ones on how to be a good professional and be able to take care of his multiple profiles. Was it the case with Phonedog? Why not learn from this case to be a better company? Ethics We are in the era of the videogame. Many kids think that the limits of what they may do is what they can do. The magic word ETHICS make little or no sense for them and the parents do not try to teach them the meaning of this magic word. Why did Noah have to use his old company name as part of his identification tag? What good makes to Noah the use of the ancient company name? Surely is bad (or at least not good) for Phonedog have their name related to an old employee. Social Is it worth to the entire society spend the hardly earned tax money in such a silly court case? My opinion is that Phonedog has already lost some of its credibility in the market (more than money) and chances are that it can lose some more by pursuit in this case ??? customers,and share holders can see it is a company that is not able to enforce a reasonable internet use policy. Noah has already lost a lot as chances of a good next employment are shrinking. Withdraw with elegance from this case , and perhaps he has a chance to make his image a little better.

n4aof
n4aof

Did Noah create the twitter account at the direction of his employer? Was opertaing the twitter account part of his duties at the company? If so, then the account is a "work for hire" and it belongs to the company just as anything else an employee creates as part of his or her job. If it was his own idea without company involvement and he operated the account entirely on his own time, then it is his property. If the twitter account was his own idea and the company merely allowed him on-the-job time to operate the account, then the situation is a lot fuzzier. Trademark infringement is almost always complicated, especially for things like domain names, etc. In general, a company does not have an absolute right to its name in all instances, but does have a right to its name and other trademarks and brand names in any situation where a reasonable person would think that the usage was associated with the company. For example a Ford dealer named Smith would not have a right to block someone creating a domain name of Smith_Ford_Dealer_Ripped_Me_Off.com because no one would think that was his company's website. But courts would generally side with the company against someone creating a website Smith_Ford_Dealership.com

ramonabeth
ramonabeth

By choosing the account name @Phonedog_Noah, the account was "branded". Then comes the question, how many of his followers were there because they were following a representative of phone dog? It would be easy enough for him to start a new account and communicate the change to the followers.

Paul A Thomas
Paul A Thomas

If Noah was allegedly using the account for eight months after he had left PhoneDog I doubt that his "Tweets" would have continued to serve or promote PhoneDog. Therefore one would assume that the majority of the conversations would be personal... check his Tweets. On the other hand, if Noah used his ex-employers assigned Twitter user name for monetary gain with another organisation (a little bit deceptive perhaps), then PhoneDog may have a fair case. Not likely, any other organisation would have seen the locomotive coming down the track with continued use of the username and forced Noah to change it. It may even get thrown out of court if PhoneDog failed to have a contract of employment stipulating what is considered company information or company property and how it is to be used whilst employed with the firm. There is nothing proprietary about followers, they can choose who they want to follow. Anyway, even before the case is decided I can tell you who will win - the Lawyers! [Joke: A 747 carrying 150 Lawyers on its way to a convention was hijacked. The hijackers demanded $2m dollars in ransom or they would release two Lawyers every hour...]

kallingham
kallingham

Have to agree that if he uses the company name in his twitter handle, he shouldn't be able to use it. What if he gets a job with a competitor? How reasonable would that be? He's gotta give it up. Now, if he used a handle that did not use the company's name, that would be a different story, imho....

GSG
GSG

1) As part of his employment, was he required to create a twitter account and tweet about his company? 2) Was he told that he had to keep the business twitter account separate from his personal twitter account? 3) Did he create the account on his own and tweet on his own without prompting from the company? If 1 and 2, then I'd think that the company might have at least a somewhat valid argument. If 3, then no.

parksde
parksde

Don't know about who owns the account, but I love the humans angle. It will be very interesting to see how the courts rule on that argument.

b4d93r
b4d93r

Since I don't know all the fine details of this case here are my thoughts. If the account was created by Noah and he used it to represent his company through it then yes, the rights to it are his companies. (The true owner is Twitter). Now if he created it for his personal use but included "phonedog" in the user name then there is a copy write issue developing there. Now if the company really wanted to pursue this, they could also claim that by mentioning the companies name, we are now property of that company and so is this article. As for the followers, they are not property of any company. This is a disturbing trend I see developing in the corporate world. We (as humans) are being sold and traded as property by corporate America which I believe infringes on civil rights and privacy rights. On any of my personal online accounts with a social network I include a disclaimer stating that this is my personal account and is in no way affiliated with anyone other than myself.

kharvell76
kharvell76

Here is my opinion of this topic. Take it as you will. Is Noah Kravitz continuing to use the same Twitter handle listed in the article? If he is no longer employed by the company, he I believe he needs to drop the company name or anything else relating to the company, from the account since he does not represent them any longer. Also, I believe it is up to a Twitter users followers whether they will continue to associate with a Twitter user in these scenarios. They are free to follow whom they want. Businesses that are confident in what they do, do not lose much sleep over things like this.

Magic_8_Ball
Magic_8_Ball

The ???followers??? that the employee has engendered will go with him, especially since these contacts were made with the employee directly. This issue is similar to the professional contacts made during the course of any employment. Companies hire me based upon my amazing skills and because of the contacts I have created. If I leave to a new opportunity, I would give my employer the related contact information, but I still retain the personal relationship. The other question is related to the actual Twitter account. A similar situation is when an employee uses their personal cellular phone for work. The company does not own that phone number if the contract and phone are owned by the employee directly. If the account was named @PhoneDog with a rotation of staff using it, my opinion would be different as the account would be clearly used only by the organization. Clearly, companies need to think about the creation and use of business social media accounts in addition to personally owned accounts used for company business. This concern should be like the use of personal devices since the two issues may be intertwined. HR departments need to craft appropriate language to handle these issues, while marketing has to craft the policies to determine who can ???talk??? for the company.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

A Google Plus account for a business are part of a personal account, hopefully that of an employee. There's no legal framework tying the account or content back to the business entity, or to anyone other than the employee who opened it. I pointed out situations like this one, along with the opposing question of legal liability for libelous statements posted by the employee to the 'company's' account, and the possibility of a non-employee cyber-squatting on a company name. If forced to guess, I'd say the employee was the 'owner', at least in the eyes of the service provider. The accounts are clearly regarded as personal by the service providers, with no separate registration available for corporate entities. I haven't read the EULA's of either Twitter or Google Plus, but you can bet several law firms on each side of the debate will be awarding large bonuses over these issues.

denbo68
denbo68

I as understand it, you own (and are responsible) for the content you post. Twitter owns the account.

rpollard
rpollard

Unfortunately, the law doesn't take into account common sense. So, it doesn't matter if we think humans are not property. What matters is how well a lawyer can twist the law into supporting their arguments and what the judge and/or jury believe represents upholding the law. The law is so susceptible to being twisted that we have criminals being the victim and victims being the criminals. Common sense has no place in law these days. It's who has the most money gets the laws changed to favor them and who can buy the best lawyers. It's scary to think what the outcome of this will be. Especially since our personal lives are not our own anymore.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Phone Dog encouraged multiple employees to create Twitter accounts with the company name. Phone Dog did not provide any content for the employees to post; they generated their own content. What I've read says Twitter recognizes the account creator as the 'owner' ('controller' would probably be a better term, or 'user owner') and specifically denies 'ownership' by non-persons; Google Plus does too.

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

I would have (a) asked my former employer FIRST before continuing to use the Twitter account and (b) changed the handle if I were to continue using it.

rpollard
rpollard

Why should the company have any say over what handle he uses? It's none of their business. Companies need to stop running people's lives outside of work. It's bad enough their tyrannical reign beats on the heads of their employees 8+ hours a day. They have no business trying to own things in their personal lives as well. What's next -- name you kid after the CEO and they want to reposess the kid when you leave.

metaphysician
metaphysician

Any time it goes back to law one gets arbitrary instructions and rules that often do not deal with the situation. I don't know if they have fixed it since, but, when I was growing up in St. Louis, it was against the law to back into your driveway. It was also illegal to back out of your driveway. As to the case, this is a mess. It was a private account, being used at least part time for business purposes. It's kind of like using a gmail account for both. It's clear cut, in my mind, who "owns" the content of me@work.com and me2@personal.com. That's why, even though I have the capability to access both my personal and business accounts from just about anywhere, I am very careful to make sure that I use the correct ones for the appropriate intent. Ultimately I think the decision will need to be made on the basis of the content of the postings after Mr. Kravitz parted from the company. It was probably a bad decision to keep the company name as part of the account name, but there is nothing common about sense. I personally think the value the company wants to give to the account is bogus, but there at least is the possibility of a quantitative solution. The company needs to prove the loss of revenue to itself or the acquisition of revenue by Mr. Kravitz or his current company attributable to persons on the list of followers. It will be interesting to see if the legal profession can come up with a way to deal with technology that is changing such that what the law pertains to is obsolete by the time the law or legal opinion is passed.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

they often go back to the lawmakers / legislators who wrote those imprecise, interpretable laws, usually in a effort to target or protect particular interests.

kharvell76
kharvell76

Because if he is no longer an employee of the company then it makes ZERO sense to have it in his Twitter username. If I worked at a company and created a Twitter handle with the companies name in it, I would take the minute to change the username if I were to leave the company. That is the only leg the company has to stand on in this matter. His followers are free to do what they want in regards to following him still or not.

fo128
fo128

I fully agree with you kharvell. It is the moral obligation of the user to inform all "clients" that he / she no longer represent that company. This is the only clause his ex-employer can present as a valid reason for lost bussines - the ex-employee used (abused) the company credentials for his own purpose after (or perhaps even during) his employment. The rest is free will and no obligation to none of the parties. It is similar to persistently using the company domain e-mail - after you leave the firm, just because it was not canceled by IT / HR in a timely manner. Somthing like that!