On Tuesday we ran a story about a lawsuit brought by PhoneDog against one of their former employees, Noah Kravitz. When Kravitz left the company in October 2010 he took the Twitter account - formerly Phonedog_Noah, now NoahKravitz - with him. The company asked only that he continue to post about them periodically. Then, eight months later, PhoneDog sued Kravitz for $340,000 - $2.50 per month for each of the 17,000 followers he had when he left. The suit claimed that Kravitz’s followers were a “customer list,” and therefore PhoneDog’s property.
In the course of preparing Tuesday’s story, I sent a request to PhoneDog for comment. This morning they replied. Here’s what they had to say.
First, they asserted that the Twitter account in question was created specifically as a marketing tool for PhoneDog:
The primary objectives of the account were to promote PhoneDog’s published paid for content, giveaways, and live blogging events, and to provide the audience a way to follow Noah during his daily activities as a representative for the company. PhoneDog has always strived to provide a very personal user experience by frequently communicating with its audience, and all of our editors were and are encouraged to tweet personal aspects of their life to the account.
In other words, though Kravitz’s account may have included personal tweets, its primary purpose was spreading Phonedog’s brand. They also assert that the Phonedog_Noah name was chosen according to their company’s naming policies:
When creating the account, PhoneDog management permitted and directed Noah to establish the account using the PhoneDog_Noah naming convention. An additional email memo was sent to the editorial staff in January of 2009 reiterating the Company’s Twitter naming policy.
Furthermore, PhoneDog asserts that the 17,000 followers Kravitz had when leaving the company were acquired because of his association with PhoneDog:
As a representative for PhoneDog, Noah published and was compensated for hundreds of blog posts and videos created during his career with PhoneDog. All of the content included the PhoneDog_Noah Twitter account information for users to follow. Our YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/phonedog and web properties www.phonedog.com, facebook.com/phonedog and other Twitter accounts attract millions of users each month. The size and the targeted nature of the PhoneDog audience were the primary drivers to grow the account’s followers.
PhoneDog’s statement concludes:
Since the creation of our very first account, our primary Twitter accounts have utilized a naming convention with the PhoneDog trademark to purposefully promote the brand along with the company’s editorial team. All of our social media accounts, content, and their related websites are extensions of our online publications. Our social media efforts were established to increase exposure for our web properties and to increase the brands' identity and not any one individual after he or she departs the company. 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 LLC. We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands. Many of the statements made regarding the facts of the case are inaccurate. We intend to prove this in due process.
So, to sum up, PhoneDog’s claim is that Kravitz’s Twitter account was created specifically to market PhoneDog’s brand, and that those 17,000 followers came from Kravitz’s association with PhoneDog. If that is so, then PhoneDog may have a point. There are still a few unanswered questions, however. For example, what is PhoneDog hoping to gain from the suit (apart from $340,000)? Do they want the account back? Do they want only those 17,000 followers? It seems a victory for PhoneDog could give them a pretty significant logistical problem, too. How would they sort those 17,000 from Kravitz’s current 25,000 followers (assuming all 17,000 still follow him)? I asked about that in my original request for comment. The response I received included the above-quoted statement, and a promise of “more to say after the holiday break.”
Given the potential ramifications for social media in the business world, this is definitely a story that we’ll be keeping an eye on.
What do you think? Should employees be allowed to take their company Twitter accounts with them? Sound off in the comments.