These days, many employers sponsor social media accounts, whether on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. Of course, the “company” itself cannot post to an account, so the task always falls on one or more employees to post entries and monitor the accounts. But, what happens when an employee who is tasked with managing the company’s social media presence resigns or is fired? In other words, who “owns” the accounts?
There is little or no legal guidance to help sort out this thorny issue. That may soon change, after the United States District Court for the Northern District of California hears arguments later this month in PhoneDog v. Kravitz.
The allegations in the PhoneDog complaint are straightforward. According to PhoneDog, a website that offers cellphone news and reviews, Kravitz was hired as a product reviewer and video blogger. While at PhoneDog, he was given use of a twitter account with the handle “@PhoneDog_Noah,” with which to disseminate information on behalf of the company, and to promote its services. Over time, @PhoneDog_Noah amassed 17,000 followers.
After resigning his employment with PhoneDog, Kravitz began working for a competitor. He continued tweeting under the @PhoneDog_Noah handle. Although he later changed the account’s name to @noahkravitz, the 17,000 followers continued to follow Mr. Kravitz’s tweets. PhoneDog sued Kravitz, asserting claims for misappropriation of trade secrets, interference with prospective employment advantage, and conversion, based on his use of the PhoneDog handle and his retention of the twitter account’s followers.
The New York Times reports that Kravitz claims that PhoneDog told him that he could keep the account, provided he tweeted from time to time on its behalf. He also claims that the lawsuit was filed in retaliation for his claim for back pay and a 15% cut in PhoneDog’s gross advertising revenues.
Resolution of this case could have broad implications if the court reaches a decision as to who owns PhoneDog’s social media accounts. Here, as explained by my colleague, Mitch Danzig in an article published in Workforce Management, one point in PhoneDog’s favor is that the original twitter handle incorporated PhoneDog's name. This naming convention may help PhoneDog prove that it owned and controlled the account.
Regardless of how this case resolves, companies should take notice. Social media policies should be carefully crafted, and should include a clear statement that it owns and controls all social media accounts and that employees have no right to take use those accounts- or the information imbedded within- to their own benefit.