Most of the time, it’s pretty clear what belongs to you, the employee, and what belongs to your employer, the evil corporation who laid you off/fired you/inspired you to hire a marching band to announce your resignation. The office cubicles, company-issued laptop, office chair, and so on belong to the company. You get your Dunder Mifflin mug and whatever paperclips you can smuggle out of the office in your pocket.
But here in the information age, nothing is simple: Who, for instance, owns that Twitter account you ran so successfully when you were still enfolded in the corporate bosom? This is the question facing mobile news site PhoneDog Media and their former employee, Noah Kravitz. Kravitz contends that the Twitter account he managed when he was an employee (or a contractor, depending on who you ask) is his; PhoneDog says it belongs to them, and is suing Kravitz for $340,000 — $2.50 per follower, 17,000 followers, for the eight months since he turned @PhoneDog_Noah into @NoahKravitz.
Kravitz says he was told he could keep the account when he left, and tweet about the company from time to time, which he agreed to do, he says, as they “were parting on good terms.” PhoneDog says the Twitter list is a customer list, and that they “intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.”
This isn’t the first lawsuit involving Twitter, of course. Just about everyone who knows that the verb “tweet” doesn’t refer exclusively to birds is familiar with some Twitter-based legal fracas. Courtney Love was famously sued for allegedly libeling designer Dawn Simorangkir on Twitter, and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter itself for allowing an imposter to masquerade as him on the service. Interestingly, though, there aren’t a ton of stories of about non-famous folk duking it out with their former employers for control of a corporate Twitter feed, but that’s probably going to change, soon enough — especially if PhoneDog wins its suit.
If you run a business with a Twitter account (and really, what business doesn’t have a Twitter account?), the best way to avoid winding up in court, or losing valuable potential customers in custody agreement, is to think ahead:
1. Spell out who owns what right from the start, in contract form. Get the lawyers involved, and make it official.
2. If at all possible, divide the responsibilities of creating and maintaining the Twitter account between different departments or individuals. It might sound silly, but people tend to feel less proprietary toward feeds they didn’t sign up for themselves. Think of it this way: You wouldn’t hire a blogger to create a blog, name it, build the site it resides on, and then write it, would you? Twitter is really just a blog in miniature.
3. Keep track of Twitter passwords, and change them when employees leave the company.
4. Don’t ask your employees to use their personal social networking accounts to promote your brand. It muddies the waters, but also, it annoys the folks who use their profiles and feeds to tell the world that their coffee this morning was not up to snuff. And everyone deserves a little corner of the internet to call all their own.