A Twitter user is being sued for £217,000 by his former employer for taking his online followers with him when he switched jobs. Noah Kravitz, a writer from Oakland, California, amassed 17,000 followers on the social networking site when he worked for PhoneDog, a website providing news and reviews about mobile phones.
He posted Twitter messages under the name @Phonedog_Noah, but in October 2010 he left the company, renamed his account @noahkravitzand took his following with him.
PhoneDog has launched legal proceedings seeking damages of $2.50 a month per follower for eight months, for a total of $340,000. The company is arguing that Kravitz's list of followers constitutes a customer database and the valuation is an estimate of how much each follower is worth to the company.
The case raises questions about the value of Twitter to companies that are increasingly using the website to communicate with customers and promote their products. Legal observers believe that if damages are awarded against Kravitz, it could set a precedent for assigning a commercial value to Twitter followers acquired in a business context.
"The costs and resources invested by PhoneDog Media into growing its followers, fans and general brand awareness through social media are substantial and are considered property of PhoneDog Media LLC," the company said. "We intend to aggressively protect our customer lists and confidential information, intellectual property, trademark and brands."
Kravitz told the New York Times that PhoneDog had agreed that he could keep the followers as long as he tweeted on the firm's behalf from time to time. He said the lawsuit, filed in July, was in retaliation for his own claim for a share of the site's advertising revenue and for back pay.
"They're suing me for over a quarter of a million dollars," he told the paper. "From where I'm sitting I held up my end of the bargain." Kravitz's following has now increased to more than 22,000 and his tweets vary from the personal and mundane such as: "Nothing like that 14th cup of coffee to really get you goin'!" to specialist views on the latest products from Nokia, Microsoft and Apple.
Jessica Godell of Partridge, a Chicago law firm specialising in intellectual property, said PhoneDog needed to establish that the list of Twitter followers constituted a trade secret. "Can a public account, with a 'followers' list compiled of public Twitter members actually be considered confidential?" she said in an article on the firm's website. "What is the economic value of a Twitter account with recent tweets such as 'Why does the bathroom smell like licorice?' and 'Dude, I was sedated last week' for a business like PhoneDog?"
In July, the BBC's then political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, took around 60,000 followers with her when she moved to be business editor at ITV News. She changed her Twitter name from @BBCLauraK to @ITVLauraK, sparking a fierce debate about whether her rights to her followers were vested in her as an individual or as a BBC reporter.
The BBC's editorial guidelines on micro-blogging make no reference to who owns the rights to a Twitter account, but says those which identify the user as a BBC employee must be discussed with managers, should not be political and should keep a clear difference between BBC pages and personal pages.