Many employees keep a combined list of personal and business contacts in their address book on their employer’s computer system. The High Court has ruled (PennWell Publishing (UK) Ltd. v Isles) that a list of contacts, prepared and maintained by an employee on his employer’s computer, belonged to the employer, even though some of the information related to contacts which the employee, a journalist, had made prior to joining the company.
Mr Isles worked for PennWell as a publisher and conference chairman for international conferences for the power industry. The case arose because he and two other employees left to set up a competing business. One point at issue was the legal ownership status of Mr Isles’ list of contacts.
The contact list was maintained on the Microsoft Outlook software provided by PennWell and was backed up by the employer. At some point during his employment with the company, Mr Isles had transferred onto this system a list of the personal contacts he had made throughout his career. After that, he maintained a combined list of journalistic and business contacts. Before he left the company, he downloaded the entire address book onto a memory stick, which he took with him for future use.
PennWell claimed that the information was prepared and maintained on its computers for the purposes of Mr Isles’ employment and as such was commercially valuable and confidential information which was the property of the company. It was, however, willing to let him have any contact information which he could prove pre-dated his employment.
Mr Isles claimed that it was his personal contact list. In common with other journalists, he kept a list of useful contacts that he had built up throughout his career.
The High Court found that the contact list maintained on the Outlook system was a new database to which Mr Isles had added old data. It was created and maintained for the purposes of PennWell’s business, although Mr Isles may also have intended to use it for his own journalistic purposes. In the Court’s view, Mr Isles removed the entire contents of his address book in order to have the widest possible list of contacts who could be useful to the competing company. It therefore ruled that he was not entitled to exclusive or shared use of it.
Interestingly, PennWell did have an email policy to the effect that employees could only use the email system for business use, but the judge found that the policy had not been effectively communicated to Mr Isles. Had it been, it would have been made clear to him that in adding or maintaining contact details on the company’s computer, he was doing so for his employer’s benefit, not his own. For this reason, although ownership of the database rested with PennWell, the concession it had offered – that he be allowed to retain details of contacts made prior to his employment with the company – was allowed to stand.
The judge advised employers to devise and publish clear policies to cover situations such as this. Had Mr Isles been made aware that information stored on the office computer system belonged to his employer, he would have known to maintain a separate list of existing journalistic contacts and the argument over ownership of the database would not have arisen.