Lawsuit Asks, ‘Who Owns a Twitter Handle?’

A lawsuit filed in July 2010 raises a new question about how companies should handle their social media presence.

An Oakland, CA writer, Noah Kravitz, left his job with in 2010 after four years of service. While working there, he tweeted under the name @Phonedog_Noah, gathering 17,000 followers. And once he was gone, he says the company asked him to tweet on behalf of Phonedog every now and again. Once he was gone Kravitz changed the Twitter handle to @NoahKravitz. Eight months after leaving the position, Kravitz was sued by Phonedog, the company claiming that the handle’s followers are a customer list. The company wants $340,000, or $2.50 per follower per month.

One source tells The New York Times that the case will have far-reaching implications for social media ownership. Another says the determining factor for the case is why the account was launched. “If it was to communicate with PhoneDog’s customers or build up new customers or prospects, then the account was opened on behalf of PhoneDog, not Mr. Kravitz,” said a New York IP lawyer Henry Cittone.

Over on Mashable, the case leads them to ask whether the value attached to each follower is a fair one. That will be an interesting question for digital PR experts in particular, who have spent a great deal of time over the past few years trying to identify influencers. Should those influential social media followers be worth more than others?

Kravitz also tells Mashable that when the Twitter handle was started, he was the only person working on it. “We weren’t equipped to have policy on this stuff,” he said.

Time and again that’s something that hurts companies. Lacking a policy, some digital blunder is made and a company has to go in crisis mode. Social media policies can help avoid misunderstandings by clearly laying out what can or can’t be done. Here are samples.

Rules about these social media matters also protect employees. Palo Alto Software founder Tim Berry writes on Business Insider that part of the problem was the name of the handle; it mixed business and personal. We’d have to agree. If Phonedog is in the handle, presumably the writer is tweeting on behalf of the company.

But once he changed the handle can PhoneDog lay claim to the followers? What if PhoneDog launched a new handle and directed interested people to that new account? Would that solve the problem?

What are some of your social media policies?