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The latest legal question: Who owns the company Twitter account?
Now that Twitter has become a common marketing and overall business tool, new lawsuits are springing up over who “owns” the account and its following – the company or its employees?
In a recent case, Phone Dog v. Noah Kravitz, a U.S. District Court ruled partly in favor of the employer. The details:
- As a marketing tool, the employer built a following on Twitter by funneling visitors to product news and reviews, and advertising, on the company website. It was what’s become a classic business use of social media
- An employee had been hired to be a reviewer, blogger and general overseer of the Twitter account.
- When he quit, the employer asked him to relinquish the Twitter account that had been set up in the company’s name. Instead, the employee changed the name of the account to his own name and continued to use the account and the “following” – numbering nearly 17,000 users — that had been built-up while he was employed with the company.
- The company sued for misappropriation of trade secrets and interference with economic advantage.
- The employee’s argument in court when asking that the suit be dismissed: The followers of the account were not the employer’s property and were not confidential.
Here’s where it stands: The court refused to dismiss the suit, and found that the company’s complaints had enough merit to go to trial. That’s not a clean win for the employer, but it does indicate that courts view social-media accounts set up by an employer to be the “property” of the employer.
Specifically, the court has ruled that the company derived a significant amount of its income from advertisements on its website and the pageviews generated from users visiting the website, and that the employee’s takeover of the account decreased the traffic to the website was sufficient to allege financial damage.
Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, though it looks as if the scales have been tipped in favor of the employer.
The lesson: To have any chance of winning a case like this, an employer must make sure the account is in its name, and not in the name of an employee.