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An interesting judgment has been handed down recently by the District Court of California (more specifically on January 30, 2012) in a dispute – which is still ongoing – between the holder of a personal twitter account who had used such account to promote services provided by his former employers and such former employers.

The dispute in question concerned, in fact, the conduct of a former employee of the company PhoneDog who, whilst still employed by the latter, used a personal twitter account in order to divulging information on behalf of the aforementioned company and promoting the latter’s services. Not only the creator (i.e. the former employee) but also the company (i.e. PhoneDog) were identified in the Twitter Account name.

After the employment relationship had ceased, the former employee had continued using the same twitter account on behalf of a new employer (thus withholding over 17,000 followers) and only subsequently eliminating any reference to Phonedog.

PhoneDog commenced legal proceeding against the former employee for having violated its industrial secrets and interfering with a prospective economic advantage.

After having been summoned in judgment, the defendant requested that the plaintiff’s claims be immediately rejected, in particular in the light of the alleged fact that the plaintiff had supposedly not provided any proof whatsoever of interference with prospective economic advantages since it had limited itself to asserting that its advertising revenue had evidently decreased.

The Court, however, with its judgment dated January 30, last rejected, the defendant’s defenses.

In the Californian Court’s opinion, PhoneDog had analytically and fully demonstrated that a significant portion of its revenue had been earned from advertisements placed on its website and PhoneDog had received further payments for every 1,000 contacts.

The latter had proven, moreover, that – as a result of the former employee’s conduct – there had been an evident diminution in the contacts on its website (insofar as the followers of such twitter account were no longer directed to the PhoneDog site). This led to the revenue generated from the number of contacts per page decreasing and to advertisers being less willing to invest in the PhoneDog site.

In the light of the above, the Court rejected, therefore, the defendant’s preliminary defenses.

The final outcome of this dispute is, however, in doubt since two essential questions that still have to be dealt with:

a) whether twitter account followers may or may not be assimilated to a customer list;

b) whether the company not only owns the twitter accounts created by it (so-called corporate  Accounts), but also those accounts created by its employees or staff (where such accounts are used continuously in order to promote its products or services).

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