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Tech Site Sues Ex-Employee, Claiming Rights To His Twitter Account 267

Posted by timothy
from the depends-what-the-meaning-of-his-is dept.
nonprofiteer writes "Noah Kravitz worked as a mobile phone reviewer for a tech website called Phonedog for four and a half years. While there, he started a Twitter account (of his own volition) with the handle @PhoneDog_Noah to tweet his stories and videos for the site as well as personal stuff about sports, food, music, etc. When he left Phonedog, he had approximately 17,000 followers and changed his Twitter handle to @noahkravitz. This summer, Phonedog started barking that it wanted the Twitter account back, and sued Kravitz, valuing the account at $340,000 (!), or $2.50 per follower per month. Kravitz claims the Twitter account was his own property. A California judge ruled that the case can proceed and theoretically go to trial. Meanwhile, Kravitz continues to tweet."
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Tech Site Sues Ex-Employee, Claiming Rights To His Twitter Account

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  • by CmdrPony (2505686) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:13PM (#38053176)
    He created the Twitter account as part of his job, so it does belong the company. Valuing those followers at $2.50 really isn't much either, and I can easily see that such group of targeted followers is worth that (I work in advertising too).

    This seems like a really straight-forward case. The Twitter account belongs to Phonedog.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:16PM (#38053206)

      It doesn't sound like the company asked him to do it.

      Sounds more like he setup a personal account and was just giving his own articles some free PR.

      Putting PhoneDog in the username is pretty stupid though and will definitely hurt his case.

      • by CmdrPony (2505686) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:25PM (#38053330)
        It doesn't matter if he was specifically asked to do so. He used the company's resources and time to make it, used company's name as part of his handle and it definitely was something directly linked to Phonedog. If you do something at your work time, it usually does belong to the company. It's so with your personal projects done at work time too. Hell, in some places your personal projects done outside your work time belong to your employer too.
        • by Fnord666 (889225) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:57PM (#38053636) Journal

          He used the company's resources and time to make it,...

          If you do something at your work time,...

          Would you mind providing a citation for this? I didn't see anything in TFA that indicated he used any company time or resources to maintain the (arguably his) blog.

          • by mjwalshe (1680392)
            and if its related to your job but done out side of work time they own it too
            • by mysidia (191772) * on Monday November 14, 2011 @11:52PM (#38055686)

              and if its related to your job but done out side of work time they own it too

              No... they own copyright to content you produce related to your job, as "work for hire". They don't own assets you create outside of work that you use in a manner related to your job.

              For example... if your job entails visiting clients; your company doesn't suddenly own your personal car, when you use it one day to drive to a client's office. If you use your personal e-mail account to contact a prospect that you happen to be friends with, or you provide your e-mail address or personal phone number as contact details for a client, and you wind up signing them up... your company doesn't suddenly own your e-mail account or your home phone number.

              They own the work that you provided to them, for example, the sale. They don't own personal property leveraged to do so.

              So... they could own the copyright to all the twitter posts, but it's still your account. What they could do is demand you take down all the twitter posts from your account that contain their intellectual property.

              Also.... you don't own the Twitter account in the first place, actually, Twitter owns it their ToS [twitter.com] says so: All right, title, and interest in and to the Services (excluding Content provided by users) are and will remain the exclusive property of Twitter and its licensors..

          • Posting anon since the f* login page over https is giving me timeout errors...

            He used the company's resources and time to make it,...

            If you do something at your work time,...

            Would you mind providing a citation for this? I didn't see anything in TFA that indicated he used any company time or resources to maintain the (arguably his) blog.

            He created a twitter account with the company's name as the twitter account's prefix, and blogged on it as part of his job with said company, in great part, while creating/blogging about phone reviews (again, for publication in said company.) As an employee or billable consultant, the amount of time to create said work/employer-related content, that is billable time, ergo company's resources.

            Not sure what is there to argue beyo

        • by Golddess (1361003)

          used company's name as part of his handle and it definitely was something directly linked to Phonedog

          But when he left, he changed the handle's name. So why should they still have a claim to it? Why can't he just create a brand new handle called @PhoneDog_Noah and give _that_ to them?

          Or the much more convoluted though perhaps more legal solution:
          1) Create brand new handle, maybe name it @noahkravitz2.
          2) Use new handle exclusively, while simply posting "This account will soon be taken by asshats*. Please unfollow and use @noahkravitz2." to the old handle.
          3) After a week or two, rename @noahkravitz ba

        • Except he didn't create anything... Twitter did. And as such, the case law is completely batshit. Bottom line: employers should a) have a written policy that ratifies common sense and b) don't be a dick. Those two things prevent a lot of problems.

        • by Cyberllama (113628) on Tuesday November 15, 2011 @02:58AM (#38056664)

          I don't know how you use company resources to make a twitter account, and there's no real indication that he used company time either. He used their name as a way to distinguish himself from the guy who had @Noah already, but this was in the early days of twitter so there was no company policy on twitter. There was basically "no rule against it". There's a difference beween saying "personal projects" belong to your employer, and saying "Everything you do belongs to us". If he put his employers name in his Facebook profile, would they have rights to that?

          I think part of your perspective is that you're assuming the reason he got so many followers is because he presented himself as "Phonedog Noah" instead of just "Noah Kravitz" and therefore attracted people looking for "Phonedog". However this doesn't seem to be the case, as he's added another 4,000 followers since leaving Phonedog and changing his twitter handle. By all accounts, this is his personal twitter account and the only thing linking it to his former employer is simply the fact that he identified with them enough to have originally included their name as part of his handle.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:16PM (#38053212)

      RTFA: it was not part of his job. He removed the name of the company from the handle when he left. That's all there is to it.

      • His job was to bring customers to the site to read his reviews and articles, the twitter account was a tool used doubtlessly during office hours as part of that job. If I'm told to do something and I make some other software on company time to help with the assigned job, the helper application still belongs to my employer, even if I remove their name from it when I leave.

        • by Hentes (2461350) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:33PM (#38053442)

          By that logic a company could claim the car you use to get to work, or your laptop you use in your workplace. He didn't develop anything.

          • by CmdrPony (2505686)

            He didn't develop anything.

            He developed business relationships with those followers, on his work time.

            • He developed business relationships with those followers, on his work time .

              That is an assumption, and not a fact given in the article.

          • by brunes69 (86786)

            Did he make the account on his own laptop? Or the companies?

            Did he use it on his own laptop, on his own time? Or did he use it on the companies laptop, on company time, to promote company product using a company internet connection?

        • His job was to bring customers to the site to read his reviews and articles, the twitter account was a tool used doubtlessly during office hours as part of that job .

          That is an assumption, and not a proven fact. The article states that the twitter account was used for personal blogging as well as self-promotion of the articles he wrote. The entire point of the court case is to decide whether or not it was a business tool or a personal communication that included references to his work.

        • by tsotha (720379)

          His job was to bring customers to the site to read his reviews and articles, the twitter account was a tool used doubtlessly during office hours as part of that job.

          That's really what the issue revolves around, IMO. If he spent company time building up his twitter following the account really should belong to his employer. If not, then it's his. The problem will undoubtedly be he spent both company and personal time on the twitter account, so then it probably boils down to how the company paid him.

    • by omnichad (1198475) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:16PM (#38053220) Homepage

      He even used Phonedog in his original handle, which further proves that this is "official." If it weren't somehow official, his employer would have claimed trademark violation on his Twitter account while he was still employed.
       
      I think this is a case of an ex-employee who didn't realize he was putting in free overtime.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        > He even used Phonedog in his original handle, which further proves that this is "official."

        Official what? It "proves" nothing.
        I create a Slashdot_Jack9 twitter, Slashdot has no rights to it. The fact that I work/do not work for Slashdot is irrelevant.

        • by IANAAC (692242)
          Oh, FFS. Do you work for Slashdot? This guy worked for Phonedog when he set up his twitter account. There was at the very least an implicit understanding that it was related: it contains the company name and he created it while employed by Phonedog.
      • by Snotman (767894) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:31PM (#38053404)

        You are coming to a conclusion backwards. Because he had a twitter account with the company's name in it and they did not pursue a trademark violation, this does not mean that he did it with their permission. How do you reach this conclusion when it could be Phonedog did not protect their mark and he was improperly using their mark. If anything, I would be afraid if I was phonedog as being seen as complacent about enforcing their marks.It seems their may be a gray area here.

        However, may be like software development, if his tweeting was done with company resources, it may indeed be Phonedog's to keep.

        • Why would they pursue anything while Noah was an employee? My employer doesn't take me to court every week to defend ownership of their logo on all the emails i send out. If i become an ex employee and continue to use that sig, things would likely change.

          After he was no longer an employee, they started defending it as theirs. I don't know how soon after he left they started defending the account. From TFA it sounds like it was under a year. That seems fairly speedy. And, they might have politely asked f
          • by Xeno man (1614779)
            How can you ask for something back that was never theirs to begin with?
    • by bmo (77928)

      I spoke with Kravitz, who says that Phonedog never knew the password for his account. âoeNo one asked me to create the account. No one told me what to tweet there,â says Kravitz, who originally created the account because that whatâ(TM)s everyone in the tech world was doing. âoeI had no inkling then that [having a Twitter account] would become an essential part of being a so-called journalist.â

      This seems like a really straight-forward case.

      No, no it isn't. You are wrong.

      --
      BMO

    • He also created a handle which included the company's name in it, which seems like it might be relevant. Im not sure what the law says about it, but seems like it cant help his case....

      • by Darinbob (1142669)

        Lots of people do this. They're not asked by their company to include the company's name, but they do it because it's a way of identifying someone. Some people just identify with their place of work.

    • by v1 (525388)

      He created the Twitter account as part of his job, so it does belong the company.

      If he created and maintained it on company time, then there's probably a good argument for that. But if it was done entirely on his own time, and he wasn't being compensated for it, then good luck, you'd better be able to prove it was a gift.

      Just because you're doing something that someone else feels they are benefiting from doesn't mean they own it. They have to ask for it, and they have to give you something in return for i

      • If he created and maintained it on company time, then there's probably a good argument for that. But if it was done entirely on his own time, and he wasn't being compensated for it, then good luck, you'd better be able to prove it was a gift.

        The terms of his employment will likely play a significant role in this case. Was he salaried? Was he hourly? Was he paid per submission? Did he work from company premises/using company equipment or was he working from home/using his own equipment?

        He muddied the waters by using the company name in his twitter account name, but he did remove the company name after leaving the company.

        He used the account for both personal, and business related purposes.

        The very nature of his work (writing opinions, and co

      • by mjwalshe (1680392)
        no but if you worked for a tool company and invented a new screwdriver they would own it.
    • by wisty (1335733)

      So does your rolodex belong to your company? What about your linked-in profile? Where is the line drawn?

    • by NeoMorphy (576507)

      If it was done as part of his job, then I am assuming there is an audit trail of some kind? Maybe an email or memo indicating that he should create a Twitter account, what to name it, how often he would update it, what he could say or should avoid saying. They should also have made clear that if he were to leave the company then he would have to relinquish control of the Twitter account back to the company.

      Unless he signed an agreement indicating any social media account created while in the employment of t

    • by arbiter1 (1204146)
      "While there, he started a Twitter account (of his own volition) with the handle @PhoneDog_Noah to tweet his stories and videos for the site as well as personal stuff about sports, food, music, etc." Right there says to me it wasn't a account solely for work he started and used it for his personally things as well as promoting stuff he wrote for them so they shouldn't be able to take it from him.
      • by arbiter1 (1204146)
        as i read the main article, "he use of “employee” in this article is actually inaccurate. In the court papers, PhoneDog claims Kravitz was never actually an employee; he was a contractor. Unless his contract specifically talked about the twitter account," he wasn't an a regular employee. he was a freelance contractor. So they have 0 so that changes matters a lot as he had a set length of time to be there and then left.they wouldn't have him start a twit account if they knew he was there only for
    • I can't believe (most of us) are arguing about this like it is physical property,

      There is no scarcity here. The Twitter account could be magically duplicated and I bet Twitter would be willing to do it if both parties agreed to it.

      If were gonna throw this in the courtroom then won't it be proper for 17,000 followers to have a say in this?

      Let's not open that can of worms. Not today at least. I'm tired. ;(

  • by Fujisawa Sensei (207127) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:21PM (#38053274) Journal

    Don't ever mix personal and employer projects, ever.

    Especially don't use your employer's name or trademarks in your personal projects.

    Hell in some states, depending on your terms of employment, even your personal projects can be seized by the company.

  • Oh, the irony ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Infernal Device (865066) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:21PM (#38053276)

    If they win, it may damage their Twitter reputation more than just leaving it alone.

    17,000 followers can spam a Twitter account pretty heavily.

    • by multiben (1916126) on Monday November 14, 2011 @07:03PM (#38053686)
      Yes I agree completely. PR is a funny beast and someone at PhoneDog clearly doesn't understand that. People in general don't like seeing companies take petty action against employees (whether rightly or not). The damage they do to their brand will likely outweigh the value of the Twitter account they are trying to get their hands on. The longer this goes on, the worse the damage. If they weren't able to do this out of court amicably then they should have dropped it and gone on.
      • by arbiter1 (1204146)
        Kinda depends on what they are suing the employee for, like if said employee stole few million bucks then general public won't feel sorry for the guy/girl. But in thee kinda cases they no matter if phonedog wins the case they will lose as Most people following that name will just stop following it and they are left with a few thousand at most followers that probably not even paying attention to the tweets anymore
      • by sjames (1099)

        If Phonedog wins, I predict that 100% of the followers leave quickly with most of them following whatever new account he might set up.

  • Easy solution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rs1n (1867908) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:25PM (#38053328)
    All he needs to do is create a new account and tweet about the issue. "I am moving to a new twitter handle nsert new handle here so please update accordingly if you would like to follow me after this handle is returned to Phonedog" Problem solved
    • Re:Easy solution (Score:5, Interesting)

      by exploder (196936) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:56PM (#38053620) Homepage

      Sounds easy and cute, but if the court rules that the twitter account in fact did belong to Phonedog, and in fact was worth $2.50 per follower, could the guy be sued for deliberately wrecking the value of the account?

      IANAL, but I'd be interested to hear a lawyer's comments: if you're in possession of some asset and are sued for ownership, and you subsequently and intentionally ruin the value of that asset, won't the court take a pretty dim view?

      • by lymond01 (314120)

        In the scenario presented, he's returning the handle and presumably the password to the company and they can do with it as they see fit. This is exactly what should have been done. Honestly, if the person has any right to keep his account, it's that work knowingly allowed him to have a popular twitter feed that mixed personal and work topics. If he's going to defend this, that will be his defense. My thoughts are that he's going to lose anyway.

      • by rs1n (1867908)
        You would have to prove that followers were followers of the company and not the guy behind the handle. Good luck with that
      • by sjames (1099)

        Nothing a lawyer argues would surprise me anymore, but I would argue that if the mass exodus happens, then the account never held any value for Phonedog in the first place, they were interested in the person. Meanwhile, if that's the case, why would a former employer have a right to continue profiting from association with him after they stop paying?

        What would happen if he simply stopped tweeting on that account? I imagine it would end up decaying away fairly quickly.

      • Re:Easy solution (Score:4, Interesting)

        by mark-t (151149) <markt@@@lynx...bc...ca> on Monday November 14, 2011 @08:32PM (#38054572) Journal

        How would that be deliberately wrecking the value of the account?

        He would be announcing that he is leaving the company (true). He would be announcing that phonedog would be taking over ownership of the account (true). He would be saying he would be opening a personal account (true), and finally, and most importantly, he would not be compelling anybody to follow him... simply advising them that *IF* they wished to continue to do so, they would need to follow his new account, since he would no longer be personally commanding that one. He would not be deliberately sabotaging anything... and people who want to follow the company could continue to follow the phonedog account.

    • If the court rules the account belongs to Phonegap, that could be viewed as damaging their possession.

      • by rs1n (1867908)
        The dAmage has already been done -- the moment they decided to due for the account -- regardless of whether they are in the right
  • by ohnocitizen (1951674) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:26PM (#38053344)
    This is clearly a personal account, that of his own volition he named and populated in a way that benefited the company he worked for. No good deed goes unpunished (or unjudged based on the current comments here). There is no reason a company should be able to claim ownership of a personal social networking account because the owner freely chose to promote said company's work and brand. Suing a former employee for such a ridiculous amount of money for not handing over his personal account is at best a wasted opportunity. Why not ask him to occasionally tweet about their site, especially if he left the company on good terms? Now they will get bad publicity under a public eye that has been increasingly critical of corporations acting like bullies - and deservedly so.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      > This is clearly a personal account

      Except for the fact that, you know, it had the company name on it.

      • by hrvatska (790627)
        It's not uncommon for companies to sue web sites that incorporate their name for trademark infringement. It doesn't mean the company owned the web site, just that they felt it infringed on their trademark. Has there ever been a case where a company was able to seize a web site, all of its content and user information, on the theory that because the site incorporated their name they therefore own it? If I create a web site called www.mickeymousefans.com, can Disney seize control of it? Would it be any di
        • +1. The company would be well within its rights to tell this guy to rebrand his account - and he did that himself.
  • by h00manist (800926) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:27PM (#38053356) Journal

    You are aware your DNA has been copyrighted and patented by Humans-Are-US. As such all your labor and product are derivative works and must be produced and immediately stored directly in our Patented Human DNA production facilites.

    As such we require your labor services by tomorrow at 7am. Please report to your Personal DNA Labor Slave Cell by 7am. Irregularities will result in immedia removal of all temporary-credit and life sustainment system access rights.

    Thank you
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  • If the company has a contract stating that the account is theirs, then it is. If they don't then on what grounds are they claiming it?

  • Let the case proceed, start moving his "followers" to another account (PhonePhrog or something), and then when he's got them moved, give them the twitter account.

  • by msobkow (48369) on Monday November 14, 2011 @06:42PM (#38053522) Homepage Journal

    They have the right to the handle with PhoneDog in it. Let them have it. But he doesn't use that handle any more; they don't have a right to his personal account.

    • by c_jonescc (528041)
      I gather that he changed the handle, but it's the same account (followers were conserved then), rather than starting a fresh account. An important distinction I hadn't realized but am glad to have learned.
  • Though I can't tell if the TechnoBuffalo [technobuffalo.com] gig is new, or was a side job while he was still at PhoneDog, but it looks like it was not a side job [mobileindustryreview.com].

    And Noah was once Editor-in-Chief at PhoneDog. I think they miss him. These divorces are often messy.

  • This is his personal site. He wasn't paid to produce it, he wasn't subsidized by his employer, he wasn't told to do this as part of his job or that the company expected it to be turned over to them when he left. This is just more Corporate grabbing and lawyers marking territory by pissing on past and present employees.

    He changed the feed handle to his name, The company has every right to start a new "@PhoneDog" if they like. If they continue to press, do the following.

    Better yet;
    1. Create a completely new

  • I'd say there's a lot of upper management from PhoneDog posting ITT.

    Seriously though, the company did not create the account: The employee did. As long as he's not trying to slander, libel or defame Phonedog, they don't really have a case. If you think I'm somehow making this up, go back and look at court case documents involving this kind of stuff. Asking for a password to something that no longer reflects the company, or was never created by the company in first place is laughable, and at best, shak
  • by Ken D (100098) on Monday November 14, 2011 @08:31PM (#38054566)

    Twitter clearly indicates in their ToS that the service can only be used if you can enter a binding contractual relationship with Twitter.

    Unless the company gave him the ability to enter a contract with Twitter on the company's behalf, then the account is either in violation of the ToS, or it is personal.

    Twitter gives the company various options for dealing with an account that infringes their marks.

    • by Narcocide (102829) on Monday November 14, 2011 @09:47PM (#38055072) Homepage

      If only I had mod points. Why does nobody read the terms of service? All these "corporate" Twitter/Facebook/whatever accounts that these corporations think they own are in *complete* violation of the terms of service of those very sites. The only way this company could keep the account legally in the first place is if they also keep the employee who goes with it.

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