Who owns a journalist's Twitter account, you or your employer?

Here’s a question for journalists: Have you got Twitter account that you use for work? Probably.

Another question. Supposing you go to work for another newspaper or magazine. Legally speaking, who owns your account? You, or your employer?

Can you take it with you – with all the contacts, chats, photos etc?

Not an easy one. But it’s a critical question, and one that an American court is grappling with at the moment.

The case involves the mobile technology news/reviews site PhoneDog They’re suing Noah Kravitz, a former contributor.

The result will set a precedent about the ownership, and cash value, of social media accounts – and not just Twitter.

Kravitz produced reviews and video blogs for PhoneDog for four years. He also Tweeted as @PhoneDog_Noah, and attracted 17,000 followers.

When Kravitz left PhoneDog in October 2010, he changed his Twitter ID to @noahkravitz and went on to increase his following to more than 22,000.

Now, PhoneDog say his Twitter followers are a customer list worth $340,000–$2.50 per follower per month.”

Their legal submission claims he misappropriate trade secrets and interfered with their trade.

The outcome of the case will affect any journalist in the UK who uses Twitter on behalf of his employer and raises key issues about ownership and value.

Most journalists would argue that their Tweets, and other platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, are part of their online presence and reputation.

But to media organisations, they can be big business, and a key part of their brand.

The Washington Post’s guidelines to staff say: ‘When using social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc for reporting or for our personal lives, we must protect our professional integrity and remember: Washington Post journalists are always Washington Post journalists.’

The PhoneDog case is likely to be decided on why the Twitter account was set up.

Was it part of their marketing, to communicate product information and gather new customers. Or was it just to give Kravitz a platform to chat to his followers?

UK journalists have been here before with this issue of ownership. There was a similar case involving contacts books in 2007.

Then, journalist Junior Isles was forced by a court to hand over his electronic contacts book to his former employers.

Isles was sued by publishers PennWell, who claimed they owned it, because he had created it and stored it on the company’s computer using their Microsoft Outlook software.

The book contained some contacts he had made before working for PennWell, and others added while he was there.

The company’s victory had – and still has – implications for all journalists who keep their contacts on company-owed computers, or even in company-provided address books and Filofaxes etc.

I remember advising delegates at my law sessions  to create, and store, their contacts lists at home, in their own time, using their own address book, or PC and software.

And if they changed jobs, I  told them to save an original copy of their contact lists at home, before uploading it onto their work PC.

Meanwhile, back in the states, Krawitz has been on a radio programme talking about the case. Listen to it

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law.

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