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Death match between site and writer over Twitter account

Account with 17,000 followers appraised at $340,000

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A mobile products review site is locked in a fierce battle with one of its former writers over who is the rightful owner of a Twitter account with 17,000 followers that was set up before he ended his employment.

PhoneDog sued Noah Kravitz in July in a complaint that claimed the password and followers for the Twitter account @PhoneDog_Noah constituted trade secrets that were illegally misappropriated when he refused to surrender the account after leaving the company. PhoneDog put the damages at $340,000, a sum it calculated by multiplying the 17,000 followers by $2.50, which it said was an industry-standard value. It then multiplied the result by eight for each month the former product reviewer and video blogger had used the account.

On Tuesday, US Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James gave PhoneDog permission to proceed with its trade secret misappropriation lawsuit after refusing Kravitz's motion to dismiss. She rejected Kravitz's argument that the calculation was so flawed that the company failed to satisfy the $75,000 damage threshold required to bring the action in the first place. She also shot down his claim that the suit had to be dismissed because PhoneDog hadn't established it was the rightful owner of the account.

“Whether PhoneDog has any property interest in the Twitter account cannot be resolved on the record at this stage in the case,” James wrote in the 15-page ruling. “Likewise, should PhoneDog be able to establish that it has some property interest in the Twitter account or the password and follower list, the question becomes what is the proper valuation of such items. Again, the parties have proffered competing methodologies for valuing the account, and on this limited record, the court is unable to resolve this dispute at this juncture.”

According to the ruling, Kravitz eventually changed the handle of the contested account to @noahkravitz and now uses it to promote PhoneDog rival TechnoBuffalo.

The dispute underscores the lines between employers and their workers that are being redrawn in a Web 2.0 world. While it's fairly well settled that employers own trade secrets and work product handled or generated by their employees, the competing interpretations over who owns the Twitter account suggest the lines in this case are murkier.

It's not the first time an employer has sparred with one of its workers over who owns a Twitter account, as Venkat Balasubramani of the Technology & Marketing Law Blog points out. Former CNN reporter Rick Sanchez ultimately kept his account with 2 million followers after leaving the TV news network.

“Was the password really a trade secret?” Balasubramani wrote. “Is an account's follower list a trade secret? Social media account information does not fit nicely within the trade secret box.”

Don't be surprised if the courts figure a way to cram it in anyway. ®

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