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Who owns that Twitter account?

Social networking accounts used for both personal and work purposes raise all sorts of legal questions

By Zach Miners, IDG News Service
February 27, 2013 09:48 AM ET

IDG News Service - Noah Kravitz built up quite a following at PhoneDog, a mobile-phone news and reviews website. By late 2010 his @PhoneDog_Noah Twitter account had amassed more than 17,000 followers. That was all well and good, until Kravitz resigned and went to work for a competitor.

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Kravitz took his followers with him, changing the name on his account to @noahkravitz. And that's when PhoneDog, which was unwilling to let 17,000 fans go that easily, filed a lawsuit against him.

The question of who owns an employee's social networking account when it's used for work-related posts is a legal grey area, as more companies are discovering when they wind up in court trying to keep readers, business contacts and other social connections within the fold.

"Social media law is a developing area," said Cary Kletter, a partner with Kletter Law Firm who represented Kravitz in the PhoneDog case. And because the legal basis for claiming ownership of social media accounts is not clear, litigation is a common course of action when disputes arise.

PhoneDog's lawsuit alleged misappropriation of trade secrets, arguing that the password for the Twitter account constituted confidential information that allowed Kravitz's new employer to unfairly compete against PhoneDog. The case played out between 2011 and 2012 in a California federal court and was eventually settled under undisclosed terms. But Kravitz got to keep the account, which now has more than 23,000 followers.

Two other cases gained attention last year for pitting employers against employees over social media ownership. In one, Jill Maremont sued her then-employer, Chicago-based Susan Fredman Design Group, after it posted messages to her Twitter account while she was in a hospital recovering from a car accident.

Maremont had used the account to promote company business, and her employer knew her password. Her lawsuit accuses the company of impersonating her for commercial purposes without her permission. That case is ongoing at the District Court in Northern Illinois.

In the other case, Linda Eagle, co-founder of a banking education services firm in Pennsylvania, was fired after the company was acquired in 2010, court records show. Eagle had created a LinkedIn account while she was president of the company, and after her termination she found the account had been taken over and put in the name of the company's new CEO, Sandi Morgan.

People searching for Eagle on LinkedIn were now routed to a page with Morgan's name and photograph -- but which still showed Eagle's honors, awards, recommendations and connections, according to the lawsuit she subsequently filed. That case is also pending.

The Maremont and Eagle cases, and others like them, are difficult to decide because there's little legal guidance today about who owns an employee's Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn account, and their associated contacts, when the account is used for work.

"Many employers today don't give much thought to post-employment ownership of, say, Twitter followers," said attorney Jennifer Archie, a privacy and data security specialist with Latham & Watkins, who has counseled dozens of employers about workplace policies and employee agreements related to social media.

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