Twitter's Legal Battle: Who Owns Your Tweets?

Who owns your tweets? What about all that personal information you’ve given Twitter? Or tweets you deleted? Or drafts you saved?

Scott Ellis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Those questions are the focus of a battle Twitter is waging with a New York State judge.

Twitter says that its users own their tweets, and all that personal information. The court says Twitter does, and should hand them over when subpoenaed. This week Twitter has filed an appeal to New York Supreme Court, the second time it’s filed a motion in this case.

Bottom line: Twitter says that it makes it clear in its terms of services that users own their content and they have “a right to fight invalid government requests,” i.e. subpoenas.

Twitter’s appeal argues that users have a property right to the content they post and have a Fourth Amendment privacy right to their accounts. The company says that deleted Tweets are not public, and that Twitter accounts should have the same protection as personal email accounts. Click here to read Twitter’s appeal.

The Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. wrote in an April decision, “By design, Twitter has an open method of communication,” noting that in its Privacy Policy Twitter informs users that what “you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly.” \(Read More: Why Twitter Will Live and Facebook Will Die.\)

He argued that “the user is granting a license for Twitter to distribute that information to anyone, anyway, and for any reason it chooses.”

It seems that social media accounts have no legal protection — he doesn’t specify how much information social media companies must share. Click here to read the April decision.

This all started with an arrest during an Occupy Wall Street protest last year. (Read More: For Occupy Wall Street, Rain, Crows and Career Advice.)

Early in 2012 prosecutors asked Twitter for information about a protestor, Malcolm Harris. Twitter told Harris about the subpoena, and he filed a motion to quash it. Then in April the Court denied Harris’ motion and told Twitter to comply with the subpoena. In May Twitter filed a motion to oppose that order. In June the court denied Twitter’s motion. And here we are in August, and Twitter appealed that decision and filed motion again.

Twitter’s legal counsel Ben Lee tweeted yesterday: “Twitter users own their Tweets. They have a right to fight invalid government requests, and we continue to stand with them in that fight.”

Twitter users aren’t the only ones paying attention to this battle, which is sure to drag out into next year. The ultimate ruling could impact millions of users not just of Twitter, but also all the other social platforms.

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin

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