Who owns Twitter followers?

Marketer Noah Kravitz is currently being sued for keeping the Twitter followers that he attracted while tweeting for the company Phonedog, under the handle @Phonedog_Noah.  When Kravitz left the company, where he worked as a blogger, he changed his user name but took 17,000 followers with him. Within a short time, he had grown his fanbase to an impressive 22,000 followers.

However, according to a story in The Guardian yesterday, the company is now seeking damages of $370,000 for Kravitz’s ‘theft’ – $2.50 per user he took, per month – the amount that they estimate each Twitter follower is worth. Eight months after Kravitz left the company, Phonedog have filed a lawsuit, claiming that the account’s followers were a customer list, and that it had invested “substantial” resources into building it. Phonedog Media claim that the list of followers is the property of the company.

A spokesperson for Phonedog Media said, “We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands.” Kravitz, on the other hand,  told the New York Times that Phonedog had permitted him to make the account personal as long as he agreed to “tweet on their behalf from time to time”. ”

Corporate control of Twitter accounts has been a contentious subject, but it seems that  this latest case could be the catalyst necessary for companies to set a precedent over future ownership tussles.

“Companies will now be developing careful ways of deciding if they want to tweet with a conjoined account,” said Barbara Cookson, an intellectual property lawyer in the UK. “For ordinary businesses it’s quite difficult to gain a following without a strong personality. You have to have a very strong brand for it to work.”

Intellectual property solicitor Leigh Ellis said Phonedog are likely to have a strong case as the original account featured the company’s name.Speaking to the BBC Mr Ellis said, “Let me put it this way, I’d prefer to be on Phonedog’s side.

“If you’re a follower, who are you following? You might be following Noah, but it’s PhonedogNoah. There’s a very good argument that the reputation accrued is to the company, rather than the individual.”

For companies in general, two lessons have emerged from this story – yes, tweeting can be a powerful tool in the quest for brand awareness, but you need to make your social media policies clear before you create a personalised account for any of your employees.