By: Andrew K Jacobson

You’re a business owner, not a Kardashian. You’ve never tweeted in your life, even if that is all your teenager does. But now the resident young wise@$$ in your office has started tweeting about your business – and shockingly (to you), new clients are contacting you because of it. You don’t care – you’re just happy that the goofball is finally productive. But you may lose your good luck if your business doesn’t protect it.

The New York Times reports that this is just what is happening in the Northern California District Court, as a company seeks to recover the 17,000 followers of a twitter account originally called “@phonedog_noah.” PhoneDog “ is a highly interactive mobile news and reviews resource that attracts a community of more than 2.5 million unique visitors each month. . . . [I]t offers up serious editorial content and video reviews that users rely on to make important decisions about their next mobile purchases.” The South Carolina company features up-to-the-minute news about almost all mobile platforms in the US. PhoneDog hired current Oakland resident Noah Kravitz to be a freelancer in the mobile industry; he soon began appearing on behalf of PhoneDog in various media outlets discussing mobile phones, and operated a free Twitter account called “@PhoneDog_Noah.” The Twitter account soon had 17,000 followers. Kravitz left in October 2010, and soon demanded back pay and a percentage of PhoneDog’s revenue. He renamed the Twitter account “@noahkravitz” and excluded PhoneDog from possession of the account.

[Phone]Dog Bites Man. PhoneDog has attacked with a federal court complaint, claiming that Kravitz took PhoneDog’s secrets – apparently, the Twitter followers – and interfered with PhoneDog’s prospective economic advantage. PhoneDog alleges that there “are many details of PhoneDog’s relationships with . . . its Twitter followers . . . that are not generally known or readily accessible to the public or PhoneDog’s competitors.” (First Amended Complaint, ¶ 13). Kravitz has yet to present his side of the story in court, but one likely avenue of attack regarding the Twitter followers is that they are publicly known; as of the writing of this sentence, 24,382 people follow “@noahkravitz,” along with 969 lists.

If the identity of the followers is not a secret, can PhoneDog lay claim to the list itself, when the “list” is in the possession of Twitter and viewable by anyone? The simplest way of resolving this question is by including in the employee handbook a clear statement that all media created during the employment belongs to the employer – and that includes information like lists, followers, statements, videos, and any other media presentation. The First Amended Complaint, above, does not allege any such statement. PhoneDog can still allege that Kravitz “converted,” i.e., stole, the followers, because they were enticed to follow “@PhoneDog_Noah” with content that PhoneDog paid Kravitz to create, and such intellectual property is a work-for-hire that belongs to the company that paid for it.

How Much Are You Worth, Tweetee? PhoneDog’s complaint (¶ 19) values each Twitter follower at $2.50 a month – for 17,000 followers, that means they are worth $42,500 a month, more than $500,000 a year. PhoneDog cites “industry standards” for the valuation, but does not provide any further details of the value of the followers of a free service. A critical look at how to value social media can be found here. The media revolution of the last 20 years will continue well into the future, and new issues will arise that few will think about in advance. Small businesses can save themselves huge expenses in protecting their media outlets by updating their employee manuals so that it is clear from the outset of employment that these new media channels belong to the employer, not to the employee.

The litigation is still only in the earliest pleading stage, but PhoneDog must realize by now that by not closing the door (with explicit statements in a contract or in its employee manual), PhoneDog cost itself a lot of money. This case is likely one hound that won't hunt.