When Twitter launched, the social network was a place for people to share random thoughts on any topic. In fact, it was often criticized for featuring tweets that included only basic information about what a person was doing at the time. “Eating a sandwich” was the kind of tweet critics commonly cited.
But over the last couple of years, as Twitter has become as much about gathering news as it has about corporate promotion, the attitude toward the service has changed. Now it’s highly respected by both the tech elite and the mainstream.
But with that respect has come a host of new issues.
For example, what happens to an employee’s Twitter account, branded with the firm’s name, if the employee leaves or is terminated? If the person shared both company and personal information and built up a large group of followers, the solution might not be so easy.
Last month, the mobile news site PhoneDog lost Noah Kravitz, a reviewer and video blogger who went by the name @PhoneDog_Noah on Twitter. His account had racked up 17,000 followers, and after he left, he asked the site if he could take the name with him. After PhoneDog asked for the name back, Noah decided to change it instead. The site quickly sued, saying the change would interfere with its “economic advantage.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened. When CNN fired Rick Sanchez last year, his popular Twitter account, @ricksanchezcnn, had about 150,000 followers. Before a legal spat could ensue, though, CNN allowed Sanchez to change his handle to @ricksancheznews -- and keep all his followers. He now uses @RickSanchezTV.
The issue not only affects high-profile people. Around the globe, individuals at small and large companies have Twitter names that include references to their employers. If an employee leaves, both parties will need to come together to decide who should take ownership of the account.
Unfortunately, there are pitfalls awaiting companies in either scenario. If firms agree to let employees keep the account but ask them to change the name, the workers could attract all their followers to a new company’s products. However, taking over the account risks losing followers after folks realize the person who had been tweeting is no longer doing so.
“Most employment agreements have clauses which assign intellectual property that is generated or created by the employee (during the term) to the employer,” the attorney Venkat Balasubramani wrote in a blog post on the matter last year. “Copyrighted materials, patents (etc.) generally fit the bill, but someone's Twitter followers or Twitter handle don't obviously fall into these categories.”
In other words, employees are not legally bound to hand over their Twitter accounts, and they can theoretically continue to tweet without fear of repercussion. And in the off chance that a company like PhoneDog does want to sue an employee for doing that, even determining a price for damages might be difficult.
In one scenario, a company might try to assign a value to each follower. In another, the company might try to use its site analytics to determine how many people have come to the site via Twitter. The only issue is how much followers are worth.
In the PhoneDog case, the site is valuing each Twitter user at $2.50, and because Kravitz’s Twitter account had 17,000 followers, the site says it is owed $340,000.
For its part, the court has asked for more evidence. But by the look of things, there might not be a simple, easy resolution to the case.
Perhaps it’s best for companies to control their branding before trouble strikes. Rather than allowing employees to use a firm name, companies should forbid the practice. That way, if an employee leaves, the firm doesn’t have to worry about a Twitter changing of the guard.
— Don Reisinger is a technology and video game columnist.