Hyperlocals Need to Protect Their Social Media Branding

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Customer lists, brand names, and social media accounts are valuable assets for hyperlocal news publishers, and they should be protected like money. PhoneDog, LLC is battling former contributor Noah Kravitz in a San Francisco Federal Court after Kravitz left PhoneDog and used a Twitter account provided by PhoneDog to promote his new endeavors to PhoneDog’s followers. Last week, the dispute over PhoneDog’s property claim in its followers heated up when a magistrate judge refused to throw out the suit.

PhoneDog provides reviews of mobile products, which includes research information and price comparisons. The company claims it attracts about 1.5 million visitors per month. PhoneDog requires its employees and agents to maintain their own Twitter accounts to tweet links directing followers to the site.

According to court documents, Kravitz served as a video blogger for PhoneDog from 2006 until October 2010. As an employee, he created a Twitter account, @PhoneDog_Noah, which eventually generated 17,000 Twitter followers. The company has alleged that it had advertising relationships with CNBC and Fox News, which gave Kravitz the opportunity to become a contributor on CNBC’s Street Sign and Fox Business Live.

PhoneDog claims that after Kravitz left PhoneDog, Kravitz changed his Twitter account handle to @noahkravitz and continued to communicate with PhoneDog’s followers to promote his services and the services of his new employer, TechnoBuffalo, a competitor of PhoneDog. PhoneDog followed up with a lawsuit against Kravitz on July 15, 2011, claiming that Kravitz took proprietary information belonging to PhoneDog and interfered with PhoneDog’s relationships with its followers and advertisers, which caused a decline in page views and advertising.

Kravitz asked the Court to throw out PhoneDog’s complaint, arguing that PhoneDog’s relationships are “speculative because they only assert that PhoneDog’s advertising revenue ‘might have’ decreased.” However, Chief Magistrate Judge Maria-Elana James would not dismiss PhoneDog’s complaint, concluding that PhoneDog provided enough facts claiming economic harm to keep its case moving forward.

“PhoneDog explicitly alleges in its first amended complaint “there is decreased traffic to the website through the Account (the Twitter account), which in turn decreases the number of website page views and discourages advertisers from paying for ad inventory on PhoneDog’s website,” Magistrate Judge James pointed out in her opinion.  The case is far from being finished, however, with no trial date scheduled.

Hyperlocal publishers can take steps to avoid PhoneDog’s dilemma. Agreements can be put in place between publishers and their editors, content creators, employees and freelancers stating that the publishers’ customer lists, mailing lists, social media follower lists, other subscriptions lists and marketing plans belong to the publishers, and may not be used except for the publishers’ business. Moreover, the Agreement should provide that any online accounts provided in connection with the publishers’ business remain with the publisher upon termination of any relationship.

This article is intended to provide general information only, and it does not provide specific legal advice.

Brian Dengler is an attorney with Vorys Legal Counsel and journalist who covers legal issues in eMedia. He is a former vice-president of AOL, Inc., a former newspaperman, and an EMMY-winning TV journalist. He teaches new media issues as an adjunct at Kent State University and formerly at Otterbein University.