A California man is being sued by his former employer over his Twitter followers in a case that could set a precedent for social media use and ownership.
Noah Kravitz, an Oakland area writer, wrote and tweeted for a cell-phone website called Phonedog.com for nearly four years before deciding to quit. Now, his former employer is suing him for $340,000 claiming that the Twitter followers he took with him after he left belong to PhoneDog.
The legal actions taken against Kravitz, 38, serve as examples of the muddled state of online privacy and ownership and the increasing level of seriousness companies are giving to social media. When the lawsuit is eventually resolved, it will likely serve as a precedent for similar cases in the future, but the final decision will only create more questions about the value and ownership of virtual friends and followers.
For example, in the case of a social media account that is used for both personal and work purposes, how are the two types of followers to be differentiated, if at all? There is no real answer because it is impossible to tell why the followers chose to follow the specific account.
In the case of Kravitz, he tweeted under the name @Phonedog_Noah, a username which included both his company and his personal name. When he left the company, he changed his Twitter username to @NoahKravitz and kept the followers he accrued under the previous username. By filing the lawsuit against Kravitz, PhoneDog is claiming that people chose to follow the account as a way to check up on PhoneDog’s activity.
However, a reasonable case for ownership of the followers can be made for Kravitz by claiming that because the content of his tweets were original material, he holds some right to followers who signed up to receive his personal tweets.
The lawsuit is further complicated by the fact that PhoneDog admits that Kravitz was merely a contractor of the company, meaning that the Twitter account may not belong solely to PhoneDog (if he were a full time employee of PhoneDog, the case against him would be substantial). In a jumbled situation such as this, how are the courts to distinguish between the two types of followers?
In a world trending towards greater inter-connectivity, these types of complicated issues of ownership are arising more frequently. Henry J. Cittone, a New York-based intellectual property lawyer, is quoted in a New York Times article on the subject stating that the lawsuit, “Will establish precedent in the online world, as it relates to ownership of social media accounts. We’ve actually been waiting to see such a case as many of our clients are concerned about the ownership of social media accounts vis-á-vis their branding.”
However, even when the court decides in favor of either Kravitz or PhoneDog, this grey area in social media ownership will not be adequately defined. For instance, how will the court decide how to quantify the value of each follower? Do they even have value? If so, will this value and the resulting precedent be applied to other social media applications such as Facebook and Google+.
Certainly, the lawsuit against Kravitz will be the first of many as the age of social media causes companies to quantify the value of their employees’ online lives. Whatever side the court takes, the decision will have far-reaching ramifications and will provide some answers to this tangled mess. For now, a slew of questions remain.