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Basil Long

Croner

Legal Consultant

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Legal Insight: Can UK staff be sued for stealing Twitter followers?

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Another week, another story about Twitter – this time from the US, where an employer has sued a former employee for allegedly stealing the companies followers.

Noah Kravitz, who worked as a reviewer for Phonedog Media for more than four years, created the Twitter account in 2007 when he first started to work at the mobile phone news site. He used the handle @Phonedog_Noah to tweet to the 17,000 followers he had gained since that date.
 
Kravitz left Phonedog in October 2010 and changed his Twitter handle to @noahkravitz, but last summer, the organisation demanded that he stop using the account and set about suing him for its projected value of $340,000 or $2.50 per follower per month.
 
Judge James, presiding in the federal district court of Northern California, ruled that PhoneDog’s economic relationships had suffered because Kravitz had taken the account and declined to dismiss the suit, as requested by Kravitz.
 
The case will be heard later this year, however, and could define who legally owns a Twitter account in the US as well as the financial value of a tweeter.
 
UK implications
 
In the UK, meanwhile, there has been no specific litigation over who owns Twitter followers, although it is highly likely that analogies will be drawn with similar cases involving contact lists or email accounts.
 
Where a contact list is purely for personal use, businesses have no legal claim over it. However, where a contact list – or possibly a Twitter account – is for business use, then it is likely that the business will be entitled to the account or – at the very least – a copy of the contact list.
 
If there is any uncertainty, the court looks at who set the account up and why. If it was done personally by an employee outside of work hours, it will be assumed that the account is a personal one unless the organisation can show that it has become so dependent upon it that to lose control of it would have a dramatic effect on the business.
 
Even then, unless there are restrictive covenants or policies in place preventing a former employee from using such information, the business would only be allowed a copy of the list of followers and would not be allowed to force the former employee to cease using the account.
 
Businesses in the UK that operate similar set-ups to that referred to in the US lawsuit should also note that the case highlights how important it is for organisations to ensure that they clearly define which contact lists or social media accounts are the property of the business. 
 
They also need to ensure that they monitor how such accounts are used, who has access to them and that they keep all policies and any non-compete or non-solicit restrictive covenants up-to-date.
 
 
Basil Long is legal consultant at HR and legal services provider, Croner.
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Basil Long

Legal Consultant

Read more from Basil Long
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