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Twitter, LinkedIn and employment law: social media headaches mean more jobs for lawyers

Posted by: Laurence Simons 15/10/12

In the past, back in olden days, leaving your company was a little easier - basically you would just dump all of your stuff in a cardboard box and walk out. And the demarcation was plain to see: photo of you and your partner? Yours. Best stapler in the office? Your employers'. Wacky little statuette of a nodding dog? Yours. Gaping gulf in the heart that only you could fill? Your employers'. It was easy, it was clean. It only occasionally got bitter.

But, now, it's all goofed up thanks to the internet. Basically: if you do a bunch of tweets while you are employed by a company and get a hefty following online, who gets those followers when you leave - you or the company? Whatever you were thinking in answer to that question: you are wrong. You are wrong. It is way more complicated than that.

Linda Eagle is the Patient Zero of companies vs. social media thanks to a landmark ruling made by a judge in Pennsylvania over her case earlier this month. In brief: Linda Eagle was previously employed by Edcomm, where she built up a handsome and useful LinkedIn account. After she left Edcomm (presumably aided by those sweet, sweet LinkedIn connections), she alleges company representatives from her former employer logged in to her LinkedIn account, changed the password and cut off her access to critical contacts. BOOM: Edcomm got the LinkedIn contacts, Linda Eagle gets nothing. So she took them to court.

Oh, but, landmark lawsuit ruling alert: the federal judge dismissed the case. And, for whatever reason, that is important: it means the argument for employers retaining contacts and other social media content produced at work just got a lot more solid, and opens the door to a raft of other complicated wrangles between employees and companies in which both sides shout the words "social!" and "media!" a lot.

One such suit in which everyone shouts "social!" and "media!" a lot is the one between tech writer Noah Kravitz and his former employer, PhoneDog. In 2011, PhoneDog filed suit against Kravitz for the rights to operate the Twitter account he started while at the company, alleging his digital association with the firm escalated his number of followers (as well as some other stuff over pay). But it was only when PhoneDog put a monetary value on each user that the suit became important: $2.50, per user, for each of his 17,000 followers. For eight months, aggregated. That's $340,000, in money. The suit has been labelled alternately "frivolous" and "really important", but has yet to have been settled. 

But, hey, deep down: is there really any difference between a list of Twitter followers and a client list? For years, employees have had to sign non-disclosures as part of their initial contract, while the age-old issue of lawyers leaving private practice jobs and taking clients with them has been a complex one for those in legal careers. While on the surface both the Eagle and Kravitz suits seem to be internet issues about obtuse internet stuff, each could signal a sea change in the way employers and employees deal with social media. Short term: change your LinkedIn password. Long term: prepare to pencil in some changes to your firm's employment contracts saying who owns what tweet.