Imagine you are an employer and your employee in charge of your social media accounts leaves, keeps the accounts, and begins using the accounts while working for a competitor. Conversely, imagine you are an employee, leave employment to work for a competitor and your former employer sues you for $350,000 because you refuse to stop using your social media accounts. These issues are at play in PhoneDog v. Kravitz. The case illustrates the complicated issues surrounding exactly who owns social media accounts that are used for work. Noah Kravitz worked for PhoneDog as a product reviewer and video blogger. He had a Twitter account “@PhoneDog_Noah” he used as one way to publish product reviews as part of his job at PhoneDog. PhoneDog asserts in the lawsuit that it issues its employees Twitter accounts in the form of “@PhoneDog_[name]”. PhoneDog alleges that all of these Twitter accounts are proprietary, confidential information. Kravitz used the account while he was employed at PhoneDog, and garnered 17,000 Twitter followers.
When Kravitz left employment with PhoneDog to join a competitor, PhoneDog asked him to stop using the Twitter account. It is alleged in the lawsuit that Kravitz refused, changed the Twitter account handle to “@noahkravitz” and then continued to use the account and maintain the Twitter followers.
In response, PhoneDog filed a lawsuit against Kravitz for (1) misappropriation of trade secrets; (2) intentional interference with prospective economic advantage; (3) negligent interference with prospective economic advantage; and (4) conversion. Currently, the Court has ruled that PhoneDog’s lawsuit may proceed at this point, but Kravitz has raised some valid points that may be a defense, but still need to be developed further in litigation.
Kravitz maintains that there cannot be a claim against him for misappropriation of trade secrets because the Twitter account followers are not a secret, as anyone on Twitter can see who the followers are. Kravitz also argues that the password to the Twitter account is not a trade secret, as PhoneDog does not derive any economic benefit from the password itself – it simply allows the user to see public information. Kravitz was also the person who created the password, not PhoneDog, so there is no PhoneDog secret at issue here. Most interestingly, Kravitz argues that PhoneDog does not have a claim against him for misappropriating the account because the Twitter account is not owed by PhoneDog. Twitter’s Terms of Service specifies that all accounts are the exclusive property of Twitter, that Twitter has the right to “reclaim usernames without liability” to the users, and Twitter retains the right to terminate accounts.
The employer is not without its share of arguments as well. While Kravitz raises some interesting technical issues about who owns the Twitter account, PhoneDog would have a strong argument that the license issued by Twitter is really the property at issue. PhoneDog could argue that because the license granted by Twitter to Kravitz was done during Kravitz’ employment and he set up the account at the request of PhoneDog, this license actually belongs to PhoneDog. Some not so well known California Labor Code provisions strongly support PhoneDog’s argument. For example, Labor Code section 2860, states:
Everything which an employee acquires by virtue of his employment, except the compensation which is due to him from his employer, belongs to the employer, whether acquired lawfully or unlawfully, or during or after the expiration of the term of his employment.
Furthermore, Labor Code section 2863 provides:
An employee who has any business to transact on his own account, similar to that entrusted to him by his employer, shall always give the preference to the business of the employer.
This fascinating case raises many interesting issues, and will not be the last time I blog about the issues it raises. It is a good reminder that the creation and maintenance of social media accounts is a critical factor in the employment context today and needs to be addressed from both the employer’s and employee’s perspectives.