Lawsuit has Online World Atwitter

A Mount Pleasant-based website’s lawsuit against a former employee has sparked a national conversation about who owns work-related Twitter accounts — and how much they’re worth.

The case, which appears to be the first of its kind, raises those tricky questions in an era of increasing social media usage, both for business and personal purposes, and its resolution could have far-reaching implications for businesses of several stripes.

“It’s bigger than Noah Kravitz and PhoneDog,” said Cary Kletter, who represents Kravitz, the defendant. “Because it’s being litigated in federal court, a precedent is going to be set.”

By the numbers

The PhoneDog Twitter case:

$340,000: How much @noahkravitz was worth for eight months, according to PhoneDog, citing “industry standards”

$4,380 or $7,705: How much @noahkravitz is worth, according to Noah Kravitz’s attorney, Cary Kletter, citing tweetvalue.com and whatsmytwitteraccountworth.com.

17,000: How many followers @PhoneDog_Noah gained from when Kravitz created it in 2009 to when he left PhoneDog in October 2010.

23,800: How many followers @noahkravitz had as of 9 p.m. Wednesday.

PhoneDog, which publishes reviews of mobile devices and services at phonedog.com, thinks the account in question — originally @PhoneDog_Noah, now @noahkravitz — belongs to the company, not Kravitz. PhoneDog wants Kravitz to hand over control of the account and pay damages of $340,000 for the eight months he tweeted to the account’s roughly 17,000 followers after he resigned from PhoneDog.

Kravitz, who now lives in Oakland and writes for another electronics news site, has claimed the account is his to use and that PhoneDog lodged its complaint because he sued first, over money the company allegedly owes him.

The lawsuits were filed in June and July, but the controversy got notoriety when The New York Times published a story about it on Christmas Day. The account had more than 23,800 followers Wednesday evening, and a “Social Media Followers are not property- Support Noah” Facebook page had more than 150 fans.

While Kravitz has been vocal about the case, appearing on television and radio shows to explain his stance, PhoneDog President Tom Klein has maintained a lower profile. But in an interview Wednesday evening, Klein seemed prepared to challenge Kravitz in the media as well as in court.

“We’re being placed in the position where we’re obviously going to have to speak more openly on the topic to make sure our fans know this is about protecting the company and all the great people who work for it,” Klein said. PhoneDog, founded in 2001, has about 25 employees and contractors, most of whom work remotely.

According to Klein, @PhoneDog_Noah was the first of several similarly formatted Twitter accounts created in 2009 to facilitate further interaction with its readers, including live blogging and giveaways. “PhoneDog ran much of its social media through these accounts,” he said.

But it was Kravitz who set up and operated the account, posting tech news as well as personal musings and, over time, gaining thousands of followers. Klein said the account had the largest following among the PhoneDog-branded handles and was “most influential.”

There was no written policy about what would happen to the accounts when an employee left the company, and the parties disagree about what the general understanding was. Kravitz, who could not be reached for an interview Wednesday, has said he was permitted to change the account’s handle when he left and that PhoneDog encouraged him to keep tweeting. Not so, according to Klein.

“We tried to reach out to Noah for three or four months regarding some issues that arose after his departure, the Twitter account being one of them,” he said. When negotiations failed, the parties filed their lawsuits.

After Kravitz made a wage claim, PhoneDog sued for misappropriation of trade secrets, interference with prospective economic advantage and conversion. The South Carolina company alleged the Twitter account’s list of followers is proprietary information and that Kravitz was using it to promote his new employer to the detriment of PhoneDog.

Related story

Social media in the workplace, published 12/19/11

“The names of the list is public, but the access to those users is really anything but,” Klein explained. “You can’t communicate with those people unless they’re following you.”

“There’s a big difference between subscribing and receiving,” he said.

In a motion to dismiss the case, Kletter disputed that point and argued Twitter owns the account and that no one owns the followers because people aren’t property.

He cited examples of other journalists who have switched employers and Twitter handles without incident and assailed PhoneDog’s $2.50 per month per follower valuation method.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James, sitting in San Francisco, dismissed the two interference with prospective economic advantage claims on Nov. 8 but invited PhoneDog to amend its suit. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 26.