In a move that could define an important legal precedent, the company that owns The Roanoke Times filed a lawsuit Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court against a former reporter over the rights to a Twitter account.
The lawsuit, filed in Roanoke by BH Media Group, will determine whether Virginia Tech football reporter Andy Bitter owns the Twitter account with the handle @AndyBitterVT and its associated followers.
Bitter left The Roanoke Times earlier this year for a similar position at The Athletic, a startup website. (The Roanoke Times is owned by BH Media Group, as is the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)
The lawsuit alleges that Bitter was requested to turn over control of his Twitter account for the next Roanoke Times Virginia Tech reporter to rename and use, but he did not do so.
The lawsuit cites the precedent that Bitter had inherited the account from the previous reporter, Kyle Tucker.
According to the lawsuit, the account was created in August 2010 by Tucker, who wrote for The Virginian-Pilot and The Roanoke Times, and was given to Bitter in October 2011. Bitter transitioned exclusively to The Roanoke Times after the paper was sold by Landmark Media Enterprises to BH Media.
The ruling could have far-reaching implications in the world of journalism, where reporters routinely build their own personal brand through the use of social media.
The unique set of circumstances was brought about in part by Bitter leaving to do essentially the same job for a different outlet. The lawsuit contends that the approximately 27,100 Twitter followers he had are the property of BH Media, and Bitter using the account to advertise subscriptions to The Athletic is illegal. The company claims damages in excess of $5,000, a legal threshold that would allow for an immediate injunction.
“The information he obtained as a result of his intentional, unauthorized access to the Account was valuable to a direct competitor of BH Media,” the lawsuit said. “And BH Media has incurred well in excess of $5,000 in damages in its investigation alone, setting aside any loss of readers, subscribers, or potential readers or subscribes and exclusive of attorneys’ fees in preparing this Action.”
“Any effort to create a new account similar to the Account in question would not net 27,100 followers for many years, if ever,” the lawsuit added.
The company estimated that it would take $150,000 and seven years (the length of time Bitter was with the paper) to hire somebody to create a similar list of potential customers.
Bitter declined to comment when reached Tuesday. Messages left with The Roanoke Times and its law firm, Williams Mullen, were not returned.