Twitter dispute

Who owns the followers of a Twitter account after a tweeting employee leaves a company? This is the $340k question being asked of an American court, which could set a new precedent and send shockwaves throughout the legal world.

In this case, an employee working for a telephone company blogged and tweeted as part of his role. During this time he gained a following of 17,000 people over 4 years. Upon leaving the company the employee changed the username on the account from ‘@Phonedog_Noah’ to ‘@NoahKravitz’. The former employee argues that the company gave him permission to retain the account on the condition that he would tweet about the company from time to time.

The company disagrees, stating that significant funds and resources had been invested as part of a social media strategy that included growing its following on Twitter to increase online presence. Interestingly, the company is not simply attempting to regain control of the account and thus the followers, but has attempted to put a monetary value on each follower, said to be $2.50 per follower per month which brings the value of the claim to $340,000 over the course of 8 months.

The dispute is centred on the question: who owns the followers following the end of employment? There are a few differing schools of thought here. It can be argued that traditionally employees leave behind details of contacts obtained throughout employment when they move on. However in the social media context ‘followers’ may not always be traditional business contacts; this loosely defined group can be made up of friends, family, competitors and any member of the public who chooses to subscribe.

The second major sticking point is that if ownership is proven to be with the company, the company may be entitled to some form of damages for the temporary loss it has suffered – but how can a value be placed upon an intangible asset such as a list of Twitter followers? That is for the court to decide if this does proceed to trial.

A point that has not been explored in this scenario is the possibility of an injunction, perhaps to de-activate a Twitter account to prevent an individual from ‘tweeting’ or using the account at all until the dispute is resolved. It would be interesting to see the courts apply an age old remedy to social media problems such as the one considered in this article. In the meantime employers may wish to draw up clear social media policies for staff to ensure they do not become the next headline.

Important recruitment law dates for 2012
IR35 case law developments