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.