How much is a Twitter follower worth?

A US company is suing a former employee for taking his Twitter followers when he left. What are the

Twitter loves nothing more than a story about Twitter, so the news yesterday that a US company is planning to sue a former employee for taking his followers with him spread fast.

Noah Kravitz tweeted for Phonedog as @Phonedog_Noah, building up 17,000 followers. When he left the company, he changed his username to @noahkravitz but took the followers with him. He claims that his former employer gave him permission to continue using the account after he left, as long as he tweeted on their behalf occasionally. However, the company is now seeking damages of $2.50 (£1.60) per user, per month, for eight months -- adding up to $370,000.

The company has given the following statement:

The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of PhoneDog Media L.L.C. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.

Moving on from the predictable outrage spawned on Twitter, there are some interesting legal issues here. Of course, it is impossible to draw any unequivocal conclusions based solely on news reports (as opposed to the details of the lawsuit). But it is immediately clear that this could have far-reaching implications for the way that individuals and companies use social media.

There are several key issues here. Firstly: what cost can be placed on Twitter users? How much value social media actually adds is difficult to quantify: how can a company say for sure that X number of Twitter followers has led to X increase in profits or uptake of services? The amount accepted by the court -- if any -- could set a precedent for future cases.

In fact, Twitter is often more useful as a branding tool (rather than a straight-up profit-increasing tool), which leads to the second key issue of intellectual property, the law which Phonedog plans to use. This is also difficult to define, as the New Statesman's legal correspondent David Allen Green explains:

On the basis of the news reports, it appears that the employer is trying to fashion an intellectual property claim rather than a straight contractual claim. If so, the employer may find it rather difficult to explain to a court which of the categories of "intellectual property" such a follower list falls into. The employee did not create the follower list with -- to use the legal jargon -- the "sweat of the brow". Instead, the follower list is voluntary and self-elective by the followers. That is not the same as a normal "database".

Overall, this case will perhaps show how well intellectual property law is adapting to social media. The irony is, of course, that until recently many employers prohibited the use of social media and saw it as too legally risky, but now employers seem to want the legal fruits of good social media practice by their employees.

Clearly, there can be no hard and fast rule, as there will be vast differences in circumstances. Some tweeters might be taken on by media companies because they already have a strong media presence: do they then automatically retain ownership of their own followers? What about those who build up their personal brand while still affiliated to a company?

As social media becomes increasingly important to companies of all descriptions, so this hazy area must become codified. Whichever way this case goes, we can expect an increase in people coming to clear agreements with their employers about who owns their Twitter followers.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.