Lawsuit May Clarify Who Owns Twitter Followers

If a social media marketer leaves his job and changes his Twitter handle, who gets to keep the followers?

This has been asked before but now what we’re fairly sure is the first lawsuit related to the matter has been filed.

The NYT reports that Oakland writer Noah Kravitz quit his job at and took his Twitter account with him (with, he says, the company’s blessing). With Phonedog’s permission, he changed his screenname from Phonedog_noah to NoahKravitz but kept the 17,000 followers he’d gained.

Then here’s what happened:

When he left, he said, PhoneDog told him he could keep his Twitter account in exchange for posting occasionally.

The company asked him to “tweet on their behalf from time to time and I said sure, as we were parting on good terms,” Mr. Kravitz said by telephone.

And so he began writing as NoahKravitz, keeping all his followers under that new handle. But eight months after Mr. Kravitz left the company, PhoneDog sued, saying the Twitter list was a customer list, and seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000.

PhoneDog’s claim that social media followers amount to a client list may be hard to uphold in court, a lawyer told The Guardian. “Can a public account, with a ‘followers’ list compiled of public Twitter members actually be considered confidential?”

An IP lawyer in New York, Henry J. Cittone, said that the case is important for the precedent it sets. “This will establish precedent in the online world, as it relates to ownership of social media accounts,” he told the NYT. “We’ve actually been waiting to see such a case as many of our clients are concerned about the ownership of social media accounts vis-á-vis their branding.”

Kravitz, for his part, says this is simply a retaliation lawsuit. He claims he is owed 15 percent of the site’s ad revenue and back pay.

“They’re suing me for over a quarter of a million dollars,” he said. “From where I’m sitting I held up my end of the bargain.”