Earlier this week, it came to light that a colleague of ours in the tech blogosphere was being sued by a blog he formerly worked for. If you have been following the story, it has been making the rounds at the New York Times, Yahoo and even the BBC of all places have picked up it up. The story at its core focuses on Noah Kravitz vs. the powers that be at PhoneDog and his “stealing” of 17,000 twitter followers, when he left PhoneDog to pursue other interests. Those Twitter followers, PhoneDog claims, comprised mostly of a customer list that they originally acquired.
The case might set a whole new precedent with the way us as blog owners, as well as contracted staff interact on a daily basis – and that is in the real world as well as the social media one. Traditionally, in a corporate environment, if you get the boot or leave your position, your contacts, emails, etc…belong to that company. Passwords are changed and you will never see any of that digital data again. Many even sign non-compete or separation agreements when leaving companies so that these firms aren’t threatened by future legal action or competition from said person.
But when it comes to contracted workers, interns and freelance reporters, there will always be a fine line of what you can and can’t do, and what rights they have in an organization. Unfortunately contract workers and freelancers are almost interchangeable words these days, especially in the blogging world.
We chatted a bit with Noah this week to get his perspective on the case and answer a few of our questions concerning his upcoming court battle.
According to Kravitz, the case was first brought against him in July of this year and seemed to be “retaliatory in nature” after he retained his own counsel first, to get paid out for some residual money from a years-old agreement that they had stopped paying.
One of the sticker parts of the dispute is that not only were the Twitter followers according to PhoneDog cultivated by them, but Kravitz is now using his account to discredit them, when previously agreed that they he would tweet on their behalf as a show of good faith upon his departure.
“You can look at my timeline and decide for yourself. I certainly did tweet on their behalf in the months immediately following my leaving the company on October 15, 2010. They emailed me a few times (twice? I honestly forget) and I tweeted every time. Then they cancelled my check, things started to turn bad, and they stopped emailing to ask me to tweet.”
When we asked him if there was ever a discussion that his Twitter account, as well as the contacts he acquired at PhoneDog belonged to them, and that he had no right to use them. Kravitz commented “Not that I recall, no.”
While the attention is certainly beaming bright on Kravitz at the moment, being apart of such a tight knit industry might make him feel like he is baring a Scarlett letter right now, but Kravitz ascertains his colleagues and even those taboo Twitter followers, are supporting him.
“Here’s what I know: I had a job with a company. We had a great run together in our little corner of the Web. Eventually I decided it was time for me to move on. We wound up in a contractual dispute. Now silly photos and quotes like, “Why does this bathroom smell like licorice” are being printed alongside terms like, “Landmark,” “Precedent setting” and “the future of social media” in publications literally all over the world. I’ve been dealing with the personal legal matters for a year now, but in the past week it’s exploded into something much larger and, apparently, important to many people.
I really don’t wish any ill on anyone, believe it or not. I just want what’s right, and to me that hinges on what me and my then employer agreed to do for one another.”
At the end of the day, the tech news industry is an incestuous beast with many tech bloggers jumping from one blog to another on an almost constant basis. The question remains though, how can those individuals still build a brand identity for themselves, and as the blog owner how can you maintain your contacts and control of your site’s own brand.
While we have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to running a site or blogging for one – one thing remains clear. Before employing anyone, even on a freelance or contracted basis, make sure you either write a contract specifically detailing what a writer can and can’t do as a representative of your blog. While we encourage our writers to have their own Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, etc… we do have only one main Twitter account for Chip Chick, that evokes our personality as a site. The same goes with our Facebook page and Google+ pages. Email accounts are on one server and can be reviewed at anytime or retrieved for each writer. At the end of the day we own our writer’s content, contacts, and their souls… just kidding about the last part… maybe.
Contracts for each writer should be very specific as to what they can and can’t do with your brand. It is easy to be taken for a ride as an owner of a site or as a writer too. If you are blogger make sure it is very clear what the expectations are from you, from the beginning. That can range from a blog post to a simple tweet. Sadly, we also had to learn the hard way a few times, but we learned from our mistakes and thankfully legal action wasn’t necessary. So do we need to treat bloggers like corporate employees? No. But taking a few tips from the corporate world will certainly help you from falling into these types of situations. Unfortunately, the reality is that many of us never stepped foot into a big company before venturing out into the big bad blogging world. After all, how many bloggers actually have an attorney to protect their brand and interests?
Noah says it best himself,
“In the end It should all work out, really, so long as people deal honestly with one another. But it’s business, so you need to get it sussed out, written on paper, and signed. Unfortunately either I didn’t get it sussed out enough to avoid being sued, or I wound up in the trailblazer’s role of having to fight for the precedent to be set. Either way, I hope others can learn from this unfortunate situation and avoid having to go through something similar in the future.”