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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How will Labour handle the Trident vote?

Shadow cabinet ministers have been promised a free vote and dismiss suggestions that the party should abstain. 

At some point this year MPs will vote on whether Trident should be renewed. It is politics, rather than policy, that will likely determine the timing. With Labour more divided on the nuclear question than any other, the Tories aim to inflict maximum damage on the opposition. Some want an early vote in order to wreak havoc ahead of the May elections, while others suggest waiting until autumn in the hope that the unilateralist Jeremy Corbyn may have changed party policy by then.  

Urged at PMQs by Conservative defence select committee chair Julian Lewis to "do the statesmanlike thing" and hold the vote "as soon as possible", Cameron replied: "We should have the vote when we need to have the vote and that is exactly what we will do" - a reply that does little to settle the matter. 

As I've reported before, frontbenchers have been privately assured by Corbyn that they and other Labour MPs will have a free vote on the issue. Just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members support unilateral disarmament, with Tom Watson, Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle among those committed to Trident renewal. But interviewed on the Today programme yesterday, after her gruelling PLP appearance, Emily Thornberry suggested that Labour may advise MPs to abstain. Noting that there was no legal requirement for the Commons to vote on the decision (and that MPs did so in 2007), she denounced the Tories for "playing games". But the possibility that Labour could ignore the vote was described to me by one shadow cabinet member as "madness". He warned that Labour would appear entirely unfit to govern if it abstained on a matter of national security. 

But with Trident renewal a fait accompli, owing to the Conservatives' majority, the real battle is to determine Labour's stance at the next election. Sources on both sides are doubtful that Corbyn will have the support required to change policy at the party conference, with the trade unions, including the pro-Trident Unite and GMB, holding 50 per cent of the vote. And Trident supporters also speak of their success against the left in constituency delegate elections. One described the Corbyn-aligned Momentum as a "clickocracy" that ultimately failed to turn out when required. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.