Federal Judge sides with PR Firm on Twitter Lawsuit


I’m not a lawyer and apparently I shouldn’t play one on TV.

Earlier this month, I told you about Tanner Friedman, a Farmington Hills, Mich. public relations firm, which found itself to be the victim of a brandjacking on Twitter. Rather than give Twitter time to respond to their complaint, the firm’s principal, Don Tanner, immediately went to local media with their plight and subsequently filed a suit in Federal Court in Michigan.

The suit was not filed against Twitter, but against “John Doe”, the person or persons responsible for the fake tweets. Tanner Friedman’s goal was obtain two things: 1) control of the “TannerFriedman” user name on Twitter and the IP address and other registration information by the person(s) responsible.

Last week, despite my prediction otherwise, the judge in the case ruled that Twitter had to provide Tanner Friedman with the information. (My read of Twitter’s privacy policy and terms of service seemed to protect Twitter from having to provide that information; but of course, I am not a judge — at least in court.)

It turns out, according to the information Twitter was forced to provide to Tanner Friedman, that the person or persons responsible for the fake tweets used a computer with an IP address assigned to Marx Layne & Co.,  another PR firm in Detroit where Tanner Friedman principals Don Tanner and Matt Friedman once worked. (Apparently when Tanner and Friedman parted ways with the Marx Layne, it wasn’t an amicable split. The two firms ended up in court fighting over who would get what clients.)

While Tanner Friedman won from Twitter exactly what they sought, I am not sure they really won much of a victory at all. Their suit and the media attention they sought for their litigation told me several things about the Tanner Friedman firm and its principals.

  • They left their former employer on bad terms — a lawsuit of some sort emerged from the employment relationship. (I don’t know which firm was at fault here, but knowing there was litigation makes me think less of both parties.)
  • They were unaware of the brandjacking for three months, something which doesn’t make me think too much of their social media expertise. (Remember, principals from Tanner Friedman were active on Twitter during this entire time.)
  • They thought it was a good idea to draw media attention to their lack of social media expertise and what is apparently a long running feud with their former employer.

As for Marx Layne & Company, I’m not wild about employers suing former employees. And I am unimpressed with what Marx Layne managing director Mike Layne told media after the information Twitter revealed implicated his firm. The Detroit News wrote:

Mike Layne, managing partner at Marx Layne, said he’s looking into what happened, but didn’t assume any direct responsibility for what have been labeled as “nefarious tweets.”

“This is not something I would do,” Layne said. “If it was done, it was not done under my direction.”

If it was done? It was done. Now is the time to take responsibility for the employee or employees who acted to harm a competitor. (In fact, the time for Marx Layne to act was on Mar. 27 when Crain’s Detroit Business implicated their firm as responsible for this incident. Yes, they denied responsibility in March, but given their history, wouldn’t it have been prudent to have begun your own internal IT investigation before a lawsuit was filed in this matter?)

The only thing I can say good about this whole episode is that Don Tanner and the Tanner Friedman team know how to work local media in Detroit. They’ve gotten coverage of this dispute in The Detroit News, Crain’s Detroit Business, local TV, some tech websites and some national PR trade journals.

As for me, I would have counseled Tanner Friedman to have handled this matter quietly and without litigation. In my experience and based on what I have heard from other PR professionals, Twitter has been very responsible to trademark claims.

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4 responses to “Federal Judge sides with PR Firm on Twitter Lawsuit

  1. Nice write-up John. I agree, handling this issue directly with twitter would’ve been better than the twitterversy that ensued. Both parties are little tarnished due the charade.

  2. John,

    While we once again appreciate your examination of this case, we feel it is important that you have all of the facts.

    When we left our old firm 2 & 1/2 years ago, Matt and I were long-time partners, equity shareholders and key rainmakers. We left in an entirely professional matter. That four clients chose, of their own volition, to come with us led to a mediation to resolve client and stock matters. Pretty typical stuff.

    Social media, in general, continues to emerge and evolve. It is a moving target. This case proves that if someone really wants to break into your house, they will. The hijacking was subtle and not immediately obvious to us. Once discovered, we attempted to work with Twitter to resolve the matter and, along with our suit, we continued to communicate with customer service every step of the way. In the end, they did the right thing. Remember, we did not file against Twitter but, rather “John Doe” (who we now know).

    We are hopeful that our bringing attention to this fraud will set a precedent and deter others from perpetuating such unethical behavior in the future.

    That, we feel, is the most important “take away” here.

    • Don —

      The sequence of events as reported in media was that you and your partner were unaware of the matter for 3 months. As I said in my first post on this, you managed to find my blog in less than 24 hours; wouldn’t it have occured to you to do a Twitter search for your firm’s name more frequently than that? Wouldn’t your firm’s name show up in a Google search in 3 days or 3 weeks?

      Once you became aware of this situation, you contacted Twitter asking for their assistance. That very same day, you went to local media in Detroit, giving Twitter not even a full business day to respond. In one of those stories which you pitched, the writer speculated that the culprit was your former employer, Marx Layne & Co. (I am not familiar with the PR scene in Detroit, but it sounds like this conflict was well known in the business community and well covered by local media. That makes me assume you knew full and well when you went to media in March whom they would implicate.)

      I just don’t see how drawing immediate news media attention to your failure to protect your brand and the previous dispute with your former employer helps your business. Wouldn’t it have been better to give Twitter a few days to act without the glare of media coverage? How many people actually saw these fraudulent tweets? As many people who saw the news coverage of your failure to protect your brand? Had you not publicized this issue, I never would have heard about and wrote about. (I dare say more people have read my blog criticizing your judgment than read these errant tweets.)

      We live in a highly litigious society and I don’t think we’re better off because of it. Business people have disputes all the time — conflicts are a part of life — but I am at a loss why things with Twitter couldn’t have been resolved with you filing your John Doe suit.

      As for not suing Twitter, in one news account, it was reported that your attorney advised you that you couldn’t sue Twitter and expect to win. (I’m assuming that’s because when you and your business partner became users of Twitter, you agreed to hold the service harmless for anything that went went wrong.)

      I don’t know, Don. On the one hand, I’m sure you’re glad to have control of your firm’s user name on this very popular social network. (I certainly would be if I were you.) But on the other hand, I find it hard to believe that you couldn’t have obtained it from Twitter without the scrutiny of media coverage and the expense of a lawsuit in Federal Court.

      If I had to bet, I’d wager that you and your firm are considering further litigation against your former employer. As the information from Twitter indicated, someone used an computer registered to that business to misrepresent themselves and to deliberately damage your firm’s reputation.

      But I hope you will decide against further litigation. In the court of public opinion, people have drawn their conclusions about the Marx Layney firm and it’s not a favorable one. If you choose to litigate this further, my hunch is it won’t enhance your firm’s reputation either.

      There are so many more important things to spend your time, energy and money on. I’d challenge you and the folks at Marx Layne to have a meeting without attorneys present to see what you can work on together to help the community of greater Detroit.

      There are so many people hurting in that great city. Perhaps together you all can work on a pro bono project for the community that will help you bury the hatchet and put your previous business conflicts in the past where they belong.

      If everyone from Tanner Friedman and Marx Layne spent a day volunteering side by side at a local homeless shelter, I promise you it will help you put this behind you and give you and your rivals some perspective on what’s really important. (Fake tweets are not it.)

      Thanks again for you visit and agreeing to disagree in such a pleasant manner.

      John

  3. Pingback: Does Twitter Have a Place in Government?- New Media Policy Group

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