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Business Emails: Company Property or Mere Information?

28th January, 2013

The question of whether your company owns emails sent by members of staff in the course of business was recently brought to the attention of the court in the case of Fairstar Heavy Transport NV v Adkins and Another [2012] EWHC 2952 (TCC).

This case was regarding a dispute between a shipping company and its former chief executive officer. The Claimant company sought a Without Notice Injunction to restrict the executive from deleting business related emails on a private email address to which it requested access in order to investigate alleged irregularities leading up to the company’s takeover by a competitor.

The Claimant company sought such access based on it having a proprietary right to the contents of the emails; it did not however rely on any claim based on copyright or any obligation of confidentiality.

The High Court refused the Company’s application on the basis that there was no binding authority that the information contained in the emails amounted to a form of property. It held that unless:

  1. the business had a contractual right to the contents of the emails; or
  2. it contained confidential information relating to the business; or
  3. the business can claim copyright over content within the emails-

the business does not have a legal right to the content of the emails. Therefore in the present case, access to the emails was denied.

The outcome of the case may have been different had the Claimant company not limited their application to one ground for relief. The judgment held “Although Fairstar has put forward compelling reasons in support of its application to inspect the emails, its inability to deploy other grounds for relief that would usually be available under English law has had the consequence that the application had to fail”. The Claimant company may have been successful by considering the above grounds in points 1-3.

If the content of emails did amount to company property there are numerous practical difficulties to consider, including: whether the title of such property passes to the recipient of an email or whether they have a license to use the content. (Not to mention the confusion if there were several recipients to any one email!)

This case illustrates the importance of protecting your business from similar circumstances and whether it is appropriate to obtain a contractual right to retain all emails relating to the company’s business.

For advice please contact Nick Clarke on 01244 405558 or email [email protected]

For further advice or information on employment law and your obligations please contact Claire Brook by sending an email to [email protected] or by telephone on 01244 405575.

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