January 11, 2012
An Update on PhoneDog v. Kravitz, the Employee Twitter Account Case
[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]
In November, the court allowed PhoneDog’s claims against Kravitz for conversion and trade secrets to proceed. ("Courts Says Employer's Lawsuit Against Ex-Employee Over Retention and Use of Twitter Account can Proceed.") In its initial order, the court rejected PhoneDog's interference with economic advantage claim because it was muddled and didn't clearly specify what economic relationship PhoneDog alleged Kravitz allegedly interfered with.
PhoneDog filed an amended complaint, clarifying its economic interference arguments (or trying to at least). Kravitz moved to dismiss the amended claims. I've linked to the pleadings above. PhoneDog claims that it had an economic relationship with the followers of Kravitz’s Twitter account, so Kravitz taking the account disrupted this relationship. PhoneDog also claims this affected its relationship with “existing and prospective advertisers” on PhoneDog’s website. Finally, PhoneDog argues that Kravitz interfered with its economic relationship with CNBC and Fox News by continuing to contribute to programs on these channels after he left PhoneDog. Regardless of how the court rules on the economic interference claims, the conversion and trade secrets claims will continue (for now).
For what it’s worth, although I don't know the precise contours of economic interference claims under California law, PhoneDog’s claims look tenuous--especially the one about the disruption of economic relationship between PhoneDog and the followers of Kravitz’s Twitter account. In the usual scenario, there's no real economic relationship between an account and followers. People follow because they are interested in information. It's not like anyone is charging their followers--i.e., typically there's no money changing hands between an account and followers. (I assume some sort of direct economic relationship (or expectation) is required to bring a claim, but the court's order isn't overly specific on this point.) Another thing to consider is that the account/follower relationship is dynamic. If people don't like what they hear from an account or they don't like a change in voice, they can unfollow, instantly and at no cost. The core of the economic value, if any, is in the ongoing content and the voice. PhoneDog also argued Kravitz continuing to use the Twitter account was a disruption of its relationship with advertisers, but I'm skeptical that PhoneDog will be able to show that advertisers on its website cared about the Twitter follower numbers. It may be true that traffic to the website diminished and and as a result PhoneDog generated less revenues from advertising, but that shouldn't amount to Kravitz's interference with PhoneDog's relationship with its advertisers.
After the court initially ruled on Kravitz’s motion to dismiss, another court (in Pennsylvania) issued its order in the LinkedIn case (Eagle v. Morgan). That order didn't cleanly resolve the claims over ownership of the LinkedIn account, but it does take a pretty dim view of the economic interference claim based on Dr. Eagle’s continued use of her LinkedIn account. (“Edcomm failed to point to “one potential contract that would . . . have materialized” absent Eagle’s alleged interference.”) As WSJ’s Law Blog notes, Kravitz filed a copy of this ruling as supplemental authority and requested the court to take judicial notice of it. Interestingly, in Eagle, the court notes that a password can’t be a trade secret because it’s not something that a competitor can derive economic value from. This should be equally applicable to PhoneDog’s argument that Kravitz misappropriated trade secrets by continuing to use the Twitter account. A Twitter account shouldn’t be a trade secret. But the court already allowed the claim to go forward, and Kravitz is going to have to raise this in a summary judgment motion.
I previously expressed some skepticism about PhoneDog’s case, but I’m even more skeptical now. I also question whether it was really in PhoneDog's interest to sue Kravitz over this. Was it really worth PhoneDog's expenditure of energy and fees to try to get back the Twitter account? Also, public sympathies have mostly tilted towards Kravitz. Kravitz has experienced a media bonanza as a result of this lawsuit and has gotten (mostly favorable) press coverage in a variety of different outlets, including the New York Times. Kravitz continues to Tweet, and he has taken a few opportunities to poke PhoneDog over its claim that each follower was worth $2.50 per month. His Twitter bio even says “People are not property. Love over gold.” People overall seem sympathetic to Kravitz’s side of the story. Someone even set up a “Save Noah” website and Twitter account. The net result of PhoneDog's lawsuit so far is a personal branding bump for Kravitz.
I’m not seeing a clear parth to victory for PhoneDog here (and more likely I’m guessing the case settles), but in the unlikely event PhoneDog wins control over the Twitter account, it will be interesting to see if the followers unfollow the account en masse.
Another Set of Parties Duel Over Social Media Contacts -- Eagle v. Sawabeh
Employee's Claims Against Employer for Unauthorized Use of Social Media Accounts Move Forward--Maremont v. SF Design Group
Courts Says Employer's Lawsuit Against Ex-Employee Over Retention and Use of Twitter Account can Proceed--PhoneDog v. Kravitz
Ex-Employee Converted Social Media/Website Passwords by Keeping Them From Her Employer--Ardis Health v. Nankivell
Court Declines to Dismiss or Transfer Lawsuit Over @OMGFacts Twitter Account -- Deck v. Spartz, Inc.