Who owns a Twitter follower?: Noah Kravitz sued by PhoneDog for $340,000

A US mobile phone news company is suing its former employee in respect of the ownership of his Twitter account.

Noah Kravitz worked for the company, PhoneDog, between 2006 and 2010 as a product reviewer and video blogger. During this time, his Twitter account with former username @PhoneDog_Noah gained over 17,000 followers.

According to the lawsuit, filed in July 2011 in the US District Court for Northern California, PhoneDog alleges that they asked Kravitz to relinquish the Twitter account including his thousands of followers. Instead, Kravitz changed his username from @PhoneDog_Noah to @noahkravtiz and kept the thousands of followers.

PhoneDog seeks damages of $340,000 (£217,000) calculated on the basis that each follower was worth $2.50 per month to the company over the course of the eight months between October 2010 and the date of the lawsuit.

Social Media Legal Issues

This lawsuit throws up issues that have been discussed for some time now:-

  •  Who owns a Twitter account maintained by an employee on behalf of an employer or closely linked to an employer when the employee leaves their employment? Similar issues still exist in respect of LinkedIn connections and other social media accounts.
  • What is the value of a Twitter follower?

Who owns the Twitter account?

As for the first question, this isn’t going to be answered authoritatively in the UK any time soon. With the PhoneDog v Kravitz action being brought in the US courts, any judgment there will not bind the courts in the UK. As IP, media and social media lawyer Steve Kuncewicz tweeted succinctly this morning, “Boys and girls – the NY Twitter lawsuit hasn’t set a precedent on who owns a Twitter Account in the UK and won’t. No equivalent UK case yet.”

There are, however, ways in which employers and employees can be more prudent when operating social media accounts. Woodsie Girl has blogged recently about common social media pitfalls and tips for avoiding them. As she notes, it is indeed interesting how the question of ownership has already arisen in the UK when Laura Kuenssberg was able to change her Twitter username from @BBCLaura to @ITVLauraK when she changed employer, allowing her to keep her 60,000+ followers.

Using a social media policy

One of the best ways in which PhoneDog could have had more certainty would have been to implement a well-drafted social media policy.

Interestingly, The Law Society of England and Wales has recently (at 20 December 2011) released a practice note on social media use. As The Law Society notes, “the purpose of [the] practice note is to facilitate an understanding of social media in the profession and provide guidance to individuals and practices engaged in, or considering whether to engage in, social media activity.”

The Law Society’s practice note states at paragraph 6.1 that “practices should consider having a policy in place.” At paragraph 6.2, it outlines points to consider when drafting a social media policy including the topics of strategy, guidelines for engaging, management, roles and responsibilities, compliance, confidentiality and consistency. As for roles and responsibilities The Law Society’s practice note suggests that the following considerations are taken into account:-

“Who will oversee social media activity and take responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the different activities, and who will be able to participate in social media activity within your practice? To include:

  • details of who will ‘own’ social media contacts. If you are responsible for your practice’s page on a social media site, it will be the practice that owns the content and contacts, whereas the contacts on your own personal page on a social media site belong to you.
  • Is it more appropriate to use a work or personal email address? For example, if you are setting up a personal profile on LinkedIn it may be more practical to use a personal email address as this would not be affected if you changed employers. On the other hand, a work email address would be more appropriate if you are promoting services.”

If PhoneDog had considered such points in a social media policy, they might have been in a stronger position.

Nevertheless, it appears from reading one of Kravitz’s latest tweets that the company had indeed already discussed the issue of who owns the followers, potentially placing them in a weaker position. Indeed Kravitz himself told the New York Times that he agreed with PhoneDog that he could keep the followers if he continued to tweet about PhoneDog.

What is the value of a Twitter follower?

For the purpose of damages sought in the action, PhoneDog have already stated that they think, subjectively, that the value of the Twitter followers was $2.50 per follower per month. Mashable has produced a useful video blog on the PhoneDog v Kravitz case, citing the Atlantic Wire’s comment on the case:-

“an absurd valuation. The company won’t say how they arrived at that conclusion, but it seems highly unlikely that each user could generate that much revenue and/or cost that much to obtain. Anyone who has used Twitter for any length of time knows that there are numerous tricks to inflating follower accounts and that the vast, vast majority of users are highly disengaged.”

As could be expected following worldwide coverage of the action, Kravitz has gained many followers since the action began (around 7,000 additional followers as at 28 December 2011). Has the value of his Twitter account, therefore, increased by $17,500 per month? Probably not.

And if the followers were actually so important to PhoneDog in the first place, why don’t they just actively follow them through their main @PhoneDog Twitter account which itself has over 14,000 followers? Chances are if they are real people and actually cared about the PhoneDog tweets in the first place, they will probably follow them back.

To keep up-to-date with the saga, follow @NoahKravitz for updates such as this one…

Noah Kravitz Tweet

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