Who owns the follow?

I am not a lawyer, but over the past few years, I have found myself becoming more and more interested in law.  I took and introduction to law course a couple of years ago out of pure interest.  Specifically, my work with service providers, law enforcement, internal investigations and recently working for a financial institution has created much more interest in what I find to be the lack of details in laws around computer crime, data ownership and use of data. This article caught my eye.  Noah Kraviz, a former employee of Phonedog, is being sued by Phonedog for taking his followers with him when he left the company.  It seems to ask the question: Who owns a set of followers on Twitter?

For ordinary businesses it’s quite difficult to gain a following without a strong personality. You have to have a very strong brand for it to work.

If I choose to follow someone or some company it is because I have an interest in what that person or that company has to say.  For me personally, so far there are very few companies I actually follow.  A few I follow because I do have an interest in their products or philosophy.  As long as that company keeps my interest, then I am happy to keep following them.  However, if I no longer have a use or interest, then I will no longer follow.  It’s pretty simple.

In most cases, I choose to follow a particular person or individual.  I like what they say, the message they communicate, or they share a common set of interests with myself.  Who they work for, is not why I follow them, it just happens they work there and that is where a majority of their tweets come from.  If for whatever reasons they move on, I will still follow them, but unless the company has created a brand I am interested in, I won’t continue to follow the company.

It is hard to pinpoint a financial value to Twitter followers as it is unclear why they follow a particular account.

The key to this statement is why they follow.  Who I choose to follow is my choice as the follower, not the owner of the account I am following.  What makes person or company feel they in any way own or can make claim to a set of followers is beyond me.  The entire follow or not follow process is not owned by them.  If you want me to follow you, then create a personal brand that makes me want to follow you. This is one of the great things about social media compared to previous technologies such as email or phone.  Once a company obtained your phone number or email address they could contact you anytime they wanted as often as they wanted and there was little you could do about it.  The company felt in control, and to a large degree they were.  You could change email addresses or phone numbers, but the cost and work involved to do that is very high for you and not high for the company.  With social media such as Twitter, Facebook and others, it is easy.  Just a mouse click and you are gone.  It levels the playing field and forces companies and individuals to compete on their brand, quality of products, treatment of their customers, and other factors.

I hope that this does not settle.  I think it would benefit everyone to have a legal precedent set.  Data and meta-data ownership is going to become very interesting from a legal point of view over the next few years, and I am looking forward to watching it unfold.

Update (Jan 3, 2012): @LeeBerlik a lawyer in Virginia wrote a post about this which you can find here.

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