According to Eric Goldman's Technology and Marketing Law Blog, the company is suing Kravitz over three points, including trade secrets and misappropriation of the account. The ruling, reported by Goldman and the New York Times, states that Kravitz is liable for several hundred thousand dollars in damages, calculated at $2.50 per month per Twitter follower.Earlier this fall, a judge ruled that a lawsuit filed by PhoneDog.com against one of its long-departed employees, Noah Kravitz, has merit.
This isn't the first conflict over who owns your Twitter account, and it certainly won't be the last. When Rick Sanchez left CNN he kept his account but changed the name. This is what Kravitz did when he left PhoneDog.
What this means to me is that now more than ever you need to get your social media policies firmed up and clarified. As in, start a conversation with your corporation counsel asap.
Dell's senior legal counsel Ryan Garcia recommends that any firm creating a social media policy take the time to understand how they are going to be using social media before they put anything together. "You also want to cover both extreme cases, where someone is an experienced social media user before they came to the company, as well as a neophyte who learns while on the job." There is risk involved in both situations: a Twitter pro could get sued by his former employer, as in the case of PhoneDog. Or a newbie could garner a bunch of followers and then take this newfound popularity to a competitor.
If you don't have any written policies, several social media policy collections exist that are only a click away. The best one is from social media consultant Chris Boudreaux, who has assembled more than 175 sample social media policies in this database. You can sort by industry type and download as many as you care to read. "The point is to clarity when an account belongs to the company, and when it belongs to the brand," says Boudreaux. "Regardless of the court decision, all brands should implement written agreements with employees who maintain social media accounts on behalf of the brand, so this kind of situation never becomes an issue for the courts."
Back in 2009, the @IBM Twitter account was registered by an IBM employee. "We simply asked the employee if we could have the account," said Tim Washer, who worked for IBM then. Luckily, the employee transferred ownership. He set up a YouTube account where his humorous videos are posted, and "I always treated it as if IBM owns it." You may not be as fortunate or have as big-hearted employees working for you.
Another issue is that many corporate IT policies prevent anyone from disclosing any kind of corporate information to the public. If this is interpreted to mean some product announcement that is Tweeted or posted online is at issue, then you might have a problem enforcing this aspect of your policy.
Boudreaux has some suggestions as well, and it is all about establishing clear-cut guidelines. "If a brand is paying an employee to maintain an account on its behalf, and wants to retain ownership of the account, the brand should establish an agreement with the employee that includes the following:
- Specify that the brand owns the account (not the employee)
- Ensure that the employee stores the login credentials in a centralized location (perhaps in Marketing or HR)
- Define who is authorized to change the name displayed on the account"