Company Sues Ex-Employee Because He Kept His Personal Twitter Account & Followers

from the tweet-tweet dept

Well, well, well. Look at this. Just about a year ago, we wrote a blog post questioning who "owned" a Twitter account when someone was an employee of a company and had built up a big "personal" Twitter following in that role... but then left the company. The example we used was CNN's Rick Sanchez. That one never hit a legal conflict, but it really was only a matter of time. Venkat Balasubramani alerts us to a case in which the company PhoneDog sued a former employee because he kept his Twitter account. A couple of important points right upfront. This was not "the" PhoneDog Twitter account. The company had its own specific Twitter account. The employee in question, Noah Kravitz, simply named his account "@PhoneDog_Noah", which has become a fairly standard naming pattern among employees of certain companies -- using both the company name and their own name as part of the handle. Also, once Kravitz left PhoneDog, he switched the account to @noahkravitz. PhoneDog still sued, claiming (1) misappropriation of trade secrets, (2) interference with economic advantage; and (3) conversion.

The court ruled on Kravitz' motion to dismiss by rejecting the "interference with economic advantage" claim, but left the other claims to stand for the time being. I have trouble seeing how either the trade secret or the conversion claim stands up at all. What's the trade secret here? Hell, what's "secret" at all? The Twitter account is public. The follower list is public. The only thing not public is the password, and there is some argument over whether or not the password was "adequately safeguarded" as a trade secret. Even if it wasn't, though, is that really a "trade secret?" It's a password! But the court thought that was enough:
PhoneDog has sufficiently described the subject matter of the trade secret with sufficient particularity and has alleged that, despite its demand that Mr. Kravitz relinquish use of the password and Account, he has refused to do so. At this stage, these allegations are sufficient to state a claim. Further, to the extent that Mr. Kravitz has challenged whether the password and Account followers are trade secrets and whether Mr. Kravitz's conduct constitutes misappropriation requires consideration of evidence beyond the scope of the pleading.
The whole thing seems pretty crazy. If you want him to Tweet as the company, give him the company account. If you want to him to Tweet as himself, let him do so. Suing for the account just seems silly and petty.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    S, Nov 11th, 2011 @ 3:39pm

    Another example of the mentality companies have: "We own you; we are your masters; you will bow down and obey us."

    That's all human beings are to corporations: chattel.

     

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    Overcast (profile), Nov 11th, 2011 @ 3:53pm

    Yes indeed S, that's sadly right anymore.
    Plus, they have more rights than citizens anymore.

    But this should be a lesson to current employees there - don't go the extra mile; you'll get sued for it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 11th, 2011 @ 4:14pm

    I could see them having a valid complaint if he still had "PhoneDog" in his username, but he changed it.

     

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    A Guy (profile), Nov 11th, 2011 @ 4:25pm

    I bet the Twitter TOS says that Twitter owns the account and these people are suing over nothing.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 11th, 2011 @ 4:28pm

    Who created the account?

    It seems strange that the "ownership" of the Twitter account isn't clear... the account must have been created at some point by someone... and if the original account was created using PhoneDog resources (like an email address, etc) -- then it seems like PhoneDog should have had the opportunity to reset the account password and close it off from Kravitz. Perhaps Kravitz changed the email account associated with it, but to do so... he probably would have needed access to his PhoneDog email account (if that was indeed the original contact for this Twitter account).

    If Kravitz created this account separately using his personal resources, then PhoneDog should have been able to shut it down via Twitter's policy when it still contained PhoneDog in its name. But since Kravitz changed it, I wonder if PhoneDog can still claim that the account is related to them now...

    In any case, this sounds like PhoneDog didn't do what it should have done when Kravitz left the company. This sounds like a modern case of "leaving with a Rolodex full of contact info".....

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Nov 11th, 2011 @ 4:48pm

      Re: Who created the account?

      "and if the original account was created using PhoneDog resources (like an email address, etc) -- then it seems like PhoneDog should have had the opportunity to reset the account password and close it off from Kravitz. "

      This is exactly why the "cloud" will never be something for sensitive data ever, there are things people don't mind losing control over it and there are others that just ain't worth it.

       

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    Anshar (profile), Nov 11th, 2011 @ 4:46pm

    If the password is a trade secret...

    would he be off the hook if he changed it?

     

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    Manabi (profile), Nov 11th, 2011 @ 4:58pm

    If the password is the "trade secret" shouldn't PhoneDog know it?

    Even if you give them the possibility that the password to the account is the trade secret, if that's the case shouldn't PhoneDog know said password? After all, it's their trade secret. If they did know it then it'd be a trivial matter to take control and/or delete the account. (Likewise, if the account relied on PhoneDog resources (such as E-mail address) they could easily take control of the account.) They haven't done so, this seems to imply that at the least he changed the password (probably around the same time he changed the account to @noahkravitz) so that would mean... he's not misappropriated their trade secret, he left it behind when he left the company.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 11th, 2011 @ 6:03pm

    So I read somewhere that this guy had 17K followers? How many more followers will this kind of attention add to the now-renamed account? He should tweet the trial from the very same account that is in question and make a big show out of it. If he can get a huge following on it, could he argue that more of these followers are now mine than ever was yours? If things start looking like he may lose, he could prep his audience to all mass drop the account when he loses. What happens then? Since its the first case to really test this law, this guy could be a superstar...to all you nerds that care about that stuff!

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 1:36pm

      Re:

      The courts will order every follower not to follow his new twitter account, not visit any new website he creates, not to follow him on message boards, etc... because corporate interests trump free speech.

      IMO, this is sorta a free speech issue. If the courts make it more difficult for him and his twitter followers to communicate, they are impeding on their free speech.

       

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      rooben (profile), Nov 15th, 2011 @ 5:16pm

      Re:

      THIS.

      If he gets another 17k followers as a result of this, how can a judge allow the claim to go forward?

      Thats like taking the rolodex, adding more names than you stared with, and the judge forcing you to hand over ALL the names (while both of you have a copy of the entire list anyway).

      Follow Noah campaign (they're trying to take my twitter account might even make the news!) should get this tossed.

       

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    The Devil's Coachman (profile), Nov 12th, 2011 @ 4:37am

    Phonedog? That's an actual company name?

    What kind of shithook name is Phonedog, and why the hell would you even want to do business with them? Sounds like just another one of the dot-bomb flameouts of years past.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2011 @ 5:14am

    Who owns the account: the company or the ex-employee?

    This is not a simple question.

    First, what was the status and responsibilities of the ex-employee?
    Was he/she a wage earner or Chief Operations Officer?

    If he was a wage earner it is clear that he had no authority and as such the ex-employee may own the account.

    Second, whose resources were used to create the content?
    If the ex-employee use company resources then there is a high probability that the account belongs to the company.

    Third, where was the work on the account done? Did the ex-employee maintain it at work? If so there is a high probability the company owns the account.

    Fourth, (and this is the weakest question) what is the content of the account?
    If the account was opened, maintained, and developed by a corporate official or sales professional for the promotion of the company using resources of the company on company time then the account is definitely a company account.
    If the account's content did not feature the company in any way, did not use resources of the company, and was developed and maintained at home then the account is the employees.
    If you have a mixed bag of answers to the two preceding conditional statements then there is a ligament different point of view of ownership.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 1:38pm

      Re:

      Companies should have no business telling us whom we may or may not communicate with. If I work for a company and build a relationship with a customer and we get married or become best friends and later I leave the company, can the company then restrict our relationship because our social relationship is their property? That's nonsense. Since when did social relationships become corporate property?

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 1:43pm

        Re: Re:

        and if someone became a huge movie star through working with Hollywood and making popular Hollywood films with Universal or Paramount and say they leave Paramount and Universal after their contract expires and they go independent? Does their following suddenly become corporate property? Since when does a following become corporate property? Or what if a famous pop star, someone as famous as Michael Jackson, switched record companies? Does the old record company suddenly get to take his following because that following is considered corporate property? That's nonsense. Why should a corporation get the high court treatment in this regard? Since when is a following corporate property?

         

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    jjray, Nov 12th, 2011 @ 7:13am

    I have to believe this is another case of a judge who completely lacks any understanding of the nature of social media issuing a ruling out of said ignorance. It's the only explanation for how anyone with a brain rules that a twitter account is a trade secret. It's an open source publishing vehicle.

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh (profile), Nov 12th, 2011 @ 9:46am

    Phonedog

    Pegging again. If we take the simple, easy out, the lawsuit
    is silly, etc.
    But let's suppose (and I don't know this is true, but I have seen similar cases) that the company had built up a customer list at considerable cost and effort. Assume further the list is "primo", as well as expensive.
    Some guy wants that list (difference between "me-too" and "star salesman" - actual case, here), so he gets hired, gets access to the list KNOWING how valuable it is, then quits, ready to make his fortune.
    Different case, right? I saw essentially this happen - the company didn't sue, but at considerable expense they did get the word out to the list what kind of person he was - after that, he found another occupation.
    In the same case, he might have preferred to lose a suit.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 2:01pm

      Re: Phonedog

      Half of this trade secret issue is nonsense. Companies really ought to have little ground to sue for trade secret breaches, it's something I hardly want my government wasting any tax payer resources enforcing. Same thing with patents and copy'rights'. Most trade secret, copyright, and patent laws need to be substantially repealed. They're antithesis to free market capitalistic principles and they're harmful to economic efficiency and to a prosperous society where useful knowledge is readily available. Free market capitalism assumes market transparency and openness and the truthfulness of information, that market players are aware of who's selling and offering what and for how much. and what's the point copy'right' and patent laws to encourage more public domain works and more inventive transparency when companies can simply protect their secrets with trade secret laws (I know they offer slightly different protections, but at least to some extent, trade secret laws offer some of the protections that the others do without offering anything back to society for contributing its effort to abide by and enforce these laws).

      and besides, being a disloyal employee maybe profitable in the short run, but in the long run, word gets out and getting a job becomes more difficult. Companies will pay the employee generously for the information sought, but they will be reluctant to later hire an employee knowing, based on this employee's work history, that this employee might be very willing to sell their 'trade secrets' away as well.

       

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    Michael Brian Bentley, Nov 12th, 2011 @ 11:21am

    It's the followers that the company wants.

    The company cannot replicate all those follows itself because it can't force followers to follow one of its other accounts. It can only get followers to voluntarily follow one of its accounts. So since the employee wouldn't surrender the account to the company, the company is forced to sue the employee to gain whatever tangible good will it believes it is owed, the account with all the established follows. The employee did run an account on twitter with the name of the company as part of the name, and in so doing was acting on behalf of the company with that account. The bewildering part of all this is that the employee refused to hand the account over, it hurts the value of the account, and the ex-employee is burning a bridge by not turning it over promptly.

     

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      nasch (profile), Nov 12th, 2011 @ 6:10pm

      Re: It's the followers that the company wants.

      So since the employee wouldn't surrender the account to the company, the company is forced to sue the employee to gain whatever tangible good will it believes it is owed, the account with all the established follows.

      That word, "forced"... I don't think it means what you think it means.

      I wonder if the company asked him to tweet a link to the official company account and encourage his followers to follow it. Any more than that is pointless IMO. If people are interested in following the company, they will. If they're interested in following the person and not the company, they won't no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit.

       

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        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 2:07pm

        Re: Re: It's the followers that the company wants.

        "If they're interested in following the person and not the company, they won't no matter what the outcome of the lawsuit."

        No, because judges can legislate public opinion just as easily as they can legislate law. If a judge says that you should follow a corporation and not an individual and like it and that it should be your opinion to favor the corporation over the individual then so be it.

        Corporations are so short sighted. Like others have said, this individual ought to notify his followers of the suit and the fact that he will no longer control the account (and will move the a new account) so that the followers can simply ditch the corporation and follow the individual. Lets see a judge force customers to stay with a corporation against their will. That's a bunch of nonsense if I've ever seen it.

         

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          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 2:08pm

          Re: Re: Re: It's the followers that the company wants.

          move to a new account *

           

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          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 2:13pm

          Re: Re: Re: It's the followers that the company wants.

          This trade secret nonsense is nothing short of corporate tyranny. The idea that corporations can legally 'own' social and business relationships through trade secret laws and deny customers and working individuals communication pathways/contact information and the idea that our society takes this nonsense for granted today is something that needs to be fixed.

           

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            Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 2:33pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: It's the followers that the company wants.

            Now I'm not saying that all trade secret is bad. In fact, now that I think about it a little bit, I may have gone a bit too far. I think some trade secret can be good. For example, customer contact information can be considered personal customer information that customers may not want freely shared with others. So in that sense there are privacy issues involved. A customer that keeps a personal list of phone numbers and addresses, leaves a company, and gives/sells/shares that information to another company could be violating those customers privacy wishes, since those customers may not have wanted their contact information to be made available to a third party. Customers may not want non-employees knowing their contact information. I don't think that really applies in this case though.

             

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 12th, 2011 @ 10:30pm

    What does PhoneDog hope to gain from this?

    Those people followed Kravitz because they valued his opinion. Does Phonedog really think that if they take the account by force and hand it off to some other random employee all those people will keep following it? Or do they think those people are so stupid they won't realize the account has changed hands?

    It sounds like Kravitz left the company on bad terms and Phonedog is just being spiteful.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 2:25pm

      Re: What does PhoneDog hope to gain from this?

      What I want to know is if the corporation is going to let the followers even know that someone else is now managing the account? If not, and those followers remain under the reasonable impression that the ex-employee is still managing the account, couldn't it constitute deceitfulness or fraud? In this case, since this is such a high profile case, that might be unlikely. But what about lower profile cases? If the ex-employee is denied contact information to his followers and is denied contact access to his followers then how are the followers to know that they are not linking to the same employee?

      Though what's more likely is that the corporation simply wants to retrieve all of the contact information, shut the account down, create a new account (or use another existing account of their own), and attempt to establish all the same followers.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 14th, 2011 @ 6:53am

    You should go to p[honedog and see what they do before you judge them.

     

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    Ralph-J (profile), Nov 15th, 2011 @ 5:18am

    Just give them the password that was used during the employment (but change it first)

    If a password itself can be considered a "trade secret", why not change it and then reveal the password that was used during the employment? You could even have the judge present to verify the old one being entered (under secrecy).

    And what about the Terms and Conditions of Twitter? Did he sign up under his company's credentials, or private ones?

     

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