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Twitter Ownership Disputes Flare Up

Social Media Ownership Battles Loom Between Employers and Workers

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Twitter ownership issues have been gaining attention as more legal disputes arise over the rights to Twitter accounts and the followers associated with them.

The disputes reflect growing tension over broader social media ownership issues involving accounts with all kinds of social networking services, especially since social media are becoming an essential part of most companies' brand and marketing efforts.

The question of who "owns" or has the rights to Twitter accounts can be murky when workers tweet on behalf of employers, especially if the employee tweets under his or her own name or a user name that he or she created, rather than the company's name.

Lawsuit Questions Right to Access Twitter Followers

The Twitter ownership issue gained a lot of media attention in 2011 in the wake of a lawsuit between a blog called PhoneDog and a former employee, Noah Kravitz, who tweeted on behalf of the site while he worked there and then changed his Twitter account handle and took his followers with him when he quit.

The PhoneDog legal fight at its core is about who has the right to access a particular Twitter account and maintain the relationship with the Twitter followers associated with it. In its lawsuit against Kravitz, according to a court ruling in the case, PhoneDog alleged that the password and compilation of subscribers in the Twitter account constituted "trade secrets," and that Kravitz had inflicted damages to the company's business through his unauthorized use of the account and "misappropriation of trade secrets."

While it may be unclear whether anyone "owns" a Twitter account other than Twitter itself, PhoneDog claimed that it does have an ownership interest in the Twitter account and list of followers based on Twitter giving it license to use the account. PhoneDog argued that a list of Twitter followers is similar to a list of business customers. Others have argued that social media accounts like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are a form of intellectual property akin to proprietary business databases or customer records.

PhoneDog Case Could Set Precedent for Social Media Ownership

The case is being closely watched for many reasons, including the murky question of whether anyone besides Twitter can really have a property interest in a Twitter account.

Some people don't think so. They believe the only thing on Twitter that users really "own" is the content they post on the social messaging service, and Twitter even claims a non-exclusive right to that content in its terms of service agreement.

A New York Times story about the PhoneDog case quoted legal experts saying the case may establish legal precedents about ownership of social media accounts.

The California court hearing the case also could wind up addressing the question of how much value each Twitter follower has to companies, which could set another legal precedent. In its legal case, PhoneDog claimed each of its Twitter followers was worth $2.50 a month.

Other Twitter Ownership Cases Involving Journalists

A couple of other journalists drew attention even before the PhoneDog case for leaving employers and taking their Twitter followers with them.

Rick Sanchez had about 150,000 followers under the Twitter handle @ricksanchezcnn when he left CNN. Like Noah Kravitz, he kept his followers and simply changed his Twitter handle to delete "CNN" from it. Unlike Kravitz, Sanchez wasn't sued by his former employer.

A BBC political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, also drew attention when she switched employers earlier this year and took her Twitter followers with her to her new job at ITV. Like Sanchez and Kravitz, she just renamed her Twitter account.

Twitter Ownership Questions Could Take Years To Answer

Since Internet-based social networking is a relatively new phenomenon, courts in the United States and other countries have had little opportunity to address many legal disputes arising from them. The outcomes of these disputes, especially ones involving new legal issues, could take years to resolve and establish new legal precedents. In the meantime, companies and workers could be in limbo for some time, unsure who has rights to what when it comes to social media accounts and contacts.

Employers Need Social Media Policies

Employers would be wise to establish written guidelines and policies regarding employee use of social media for work-related purposes.

Having written policies and requiring employees to read and agree to them could spare a company legal headaches later if and when disputes arise with workers over the rights to social media contacts and accounts which they maintained or participated in while working there.

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