Who owns the followers when employees leave?

 

Twitter has been a tool where once it was about letting people know your mundane tasks like eating breakfast or walking to the shop. After several political revolutions and breaking news events, Twitter became a mainstream tool.

As Twitter’s influence grows, so does the baggage of increasing responsibility and complicated dilemmas. Take, for example, this recent story, first reported in the New York Times, in which a former writer for PhoneDog, Noah Kravitz, was sued for $34,000 over his followers.

Kravitz, started on Twitter with this username @PhoneDog_Noah, and over time, he gained 17,000 followers. When he left PhoneDog in October 2011, he changed his Twitter name to @NoahKravitz and continued to tweet from his renamed profile. He says PhoneDog gave him its blessing to continue to tweet from that account.

Fast forward eight months and PhoneDog decides to sue Kravitz for violating trade secrets and interfering with PhoneDog’s business. PhoneDog claims the followers he amassed during his stint at PhoneDog is PhoneDog’s customer list.

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. When CNN sacked Rick Sanchez last year, his popular Twitter account, @ricksanchezcnn, had about 150,000 followers. But in avoiding a high profile legal spat, CNN allowed Sanchez to change his handle to @ricksancheznews and keep all his followers.

The question is would Kravitz have amassed his Twitter following if he didn’t write for PhoneDog? There is no one definite answer because it’s still a very young issue. In my opinion, PhoneDog and Kravitz mutually helped each other’s brand but one could argue that with new media, Kravitz could have built his own media entity. But the $34,000 question is would he have been as successful?

What are the lessons to be learned? Many writers spend a great deal of time and effort creating their own brand on social sites such as  Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook and would throw a fit to hear that all that work would stay at their former company if they decided to move on.

No matter what industry you are in, if you are to include the business name in your username, make sure straight off the gate that you have this important conversation with your employer over who owns what.

Lessons always come with potential pitfalls as well. If your company agrees to let you keep your account but demand you change your username, the danger for that organisation is that they lose all those followers to a rival company. The next pitfall is by taking over a departing employee’s account, they can also risk losing those loyal followers because the person who has been tweeting from it is no longer doing so.

It’s a new legal issue that I am sure will be increasingly discussed and scrutinised in 2012. With new territory comes complex issues.

Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...

6 Comments

  1. bobby k2k Reply

    Whoever has the login owns the followers. If companies are naive enough to think someone will remain in their employ *forever* then they failed somehow.

    1. Mike Reply

      If you are communicating for/under a brand, then the company owns that account and followers. It is the company who gave the employee the opportunity to tweet under their brand. Let them do the hard work of creating a company/brand if they want to go alone.

      1. Iam John Lai

        Thanks for sharing your thought’s guys. Cases like this are unfortunate, but it’s a great learning experience for when a new employee comes onboard for social media purposes. The last few years social media policy’s implementations were the biggie and with this new issue raising, lawyers are sure to get a few more enquiries coming their way

  2. David Horrocks Reply

    Way I see it is that you own the account not the followers they chose to follow you and its you that has put the work in to develope the (co) brand. At the end of the day its about relationships. You have developed that relationship through various mediums (networking, private drinks, meetings events etc) and not always through work related. As an indivudual though you do need to be clear that as your self brand is you. when you work for the company. I.E. Notice when you apply for a new role, one leading question what do you bring to the table? My network my contacts my relationships my companies I deal with etc(ready to go). Otherwords how I am conected offering on a silver platter but “yours to keep after I Leave? LOL no . I rest my case
    David a follower of John

  3. Joanne Faith Reply

    Surely the employment contract would at some point imply the company’s ownership this particular type of intellectual property. The only time the line would blurr is when you’re tweeting as yourself, for the company e.g. ASOS’s tweeters who tweet from ASOS_Nat (I think?)

    1. Iam John Lai Reply

      I think it never cross their minds especially with ownership of followers especially when the platform was young especially in legal, so when this whole fiasco came around it was like “shit” you are taking away our audience. So, it’s always been there but just never fully thought out. Kinda like social media policies, it takes a few high profile cases to get people thinking about the importance of it.

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