In this age of social media and social networking, Twitter has become a resource that continues to grow in importance. While still less than seven years old, Twitter is one of the 10 most popular websites in the world and has over 500 million registered users. Authors use Twitter to publish messages up to 140 characters in length to their followers—messages that can also be accessed by the rest of the internet. While Twitter is simple in its design, some complex issues have begun to arise as a result of the exposure these messages receive. One of these issues is who owns a particular Twitter handle.
A Twitter handle is the username users select to publish their messages. Who owns a Twitter handle is probably not something that most people have given much thought to when registering an account to stay connected with friends or for other similar uses. However, when an employee uses a Twitter account in connection with his or her job, who owns the Twitter handle is a very important question.
A leading case on this issue is PhoneDog v. Kravitz, No. C 11-03474 MEJ., 2011 WL 5415612, (N.D. Cal. Nov. 8, 2011). Noah Kravitz was employed by PhoneDog and one of his duties was to tweet about the company and its products. When Kravitz left the company, he simply changed his Twitter handle from @Phonedog_Noah to @NoahKravitz and kept all of his followers under the new Twitter handle. PhoneDog claimed that Kravitz was supposed to be using the Twitter account only to further the goals of the employer and thus the company should own the account. As employees were asked to maintain Twitter accounts to drive traffic to PhoneDog’s website, PhoneDog claimed that Kravitz’s followers were tantamount to a business customer list, and thus should be considered property of PhoneDog.
Using a Twitter account in connection with one’s job can give an author exposure he would not otherwise be able to attain on his own. For instance, by the time Kravitz left PhoneDog, he had amassed over 17,000 followers under his Twitter handle. While it is impossible to know for sure, it is highly unlikely Kravitz would have been able to amass such a following without his connection to PhoneDog. Yet, as the influential technology and business publication The Next Web argues, “Just because your job affords you certain amenities certainly doesn’t mean that once you leave that job, forced or otherwise, you have to give all of that back.”
Precedent certainly exists for this very argument—and we only have to look back to 2012 to find three high profile examples. Michelle Beadle, a popular sports commentator, changed her Twitter handle (from @ESPN_Michelle to @MichelleDBeadle) to keep all of her over 600,000 followers after moving from ESPN to NBC this past summer. Pat Forde, a national sports columnist, changed his Twitter handle (from @espn4d to @YahooForde) to keep all of his over 100,000 followers after moving from ESPN to Yahoo! Sports. And Darren Rovell (@DarrenRovell), a popular and influential sports business reporter, took his over 200,000 followers with him after moving from CNBC to ESPN.
Beadle and Forde even had the name of their former employer (ESPN) as part of their former Twitter handles, so a simple examination as to the purpose of the account may not provide as much clarity about ownership as one may think. Besides, as ESPN’s former ombudsman notes, “Reporters and analysts increasingly see their accounts as personal assets they’ve worked hard to build, simultaneously a clip file and a portable audience for their work.” This translates into a very valuable asset and is something “they will be loath to surrender.”
While many interested parties were keeping an eye on the outcome in PhoneDog v. Kravitz, hoping that it would establish some clear legal boundaries between employees’ personal use of social media and employers’ claim to those channels of communication, they will now have to look elsewhere for such a holding. In December 2012, PhoneDog and Kravitz settled out of court, allowing Kravitz to maintain sole ownership of the @NoahKravitz Twitter account. Alas, we must now wait for another lawsuit for precedent-setting answers.