Ownership of contacts lists after employment has ended

PennWell Publishing (UK) Limited v Isles

Who owns a contacts list maintained by an employee in Outlook on the employer’s computer system? In PennWell Publishing (UK) Limited v Isles, the High Court decided that the list belonged to the employer, despite the fact that it contained personal contacts and contacts that the employee had made before his employment had started.

Mr Isles, a journalist, was employed as a publisher and conference chairman for PennWell. During his employment, he created and maintained a contacts list on PennWell’s Outlook system, which included personal contacts, journalistic contacts and contacts that he had made before his employment started, as well as business contacts that he developed in his role with PennWell.

After Isles left PennWell to set up a competing business, it discovered that he had downloaded the entire Outlook contacts list from his work laptop.

Isles’s contract stated that all documents used during employment belonged to the company and had to be returned before he left.

PennWell applied for an injunction for the return of the contacts list. Isles argued that most of the contacts on the list were personal to him.

The High Court had to decide whether the contacts list belonged exclusively to either PennWell or Isles or whether it was jointly owned by both.

The High Court said that where an address list is contained in Outlook or a similar software that is part of the employer’s e-mail system and backed-up by the employer, the database or list belongs to the employer and may not be copied or removed in its entirety by employees for use outside or after employment. The High Court said that it would be “highly desirable” for employers to publish e-mail policies to communicate this to employees. While PennWell had an appropriate e-mail policy, the policy had not been effectively communicated to Isles and, therefore, PennWell was not entitled to rely on it.

Had Isles maintained his list of contacts as a separate, private address book, he would most likely have been entitled to that list. The court distinguished between contacts developed for the purposes of employment, where removal of contact information would be detrimental to the employer, and other contacts that an employee might keep for career purposes.

The court concluded that the list belonged to PennWell, but that Isles could copy from it his journalistic contacts and those made before his employment started.

Key implications 

The confusion over ownership of the contacts lists that led to this case coming to court highlights the need for clear policies on ownership of contacts information. Employers should as a minimum:

  • Review e-mail policies to ensure they clearly identify what information is considered to belong to the employer, and confirm that it may not be removed or copied.
  • Communicate e-mail policies to all existing staff and bring these to the attention of new employees.
  • Ensure that confidentiality and return of property provisions in contracts cover contacts information and state what information will be protected/must be returned after employment.
  • Consider giving employees the option of a personal contacts folder to maintain contacts that are personal and/or those that pre-date employment.

Judith Harris, professional support lawyer, Addleshaw Goddard

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