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Who Owns the Email?

If a member of staff uses your computer system to exchange emails, does the content of the email become the property of your business?

This question was addressed recently in a court case concerning a dispute that arose between a shipping company and its former chief executive.  The company had gone to court to obtain an order to prevent the executive from deleting emails he had received, which it wished to access in order to investigate alleged accounting irregularities and in order to look into a dispute over a contract.  The chief executive was technically employed by a service company and the company he had run had automatically deleted from its own servers emails which it had forwarded to him.

The High Court concluded that unless the business has a contractual right to the contents of the email or it contains confidential information relating to the business or the business can claim copyright over content within the email, the business does not have a legal right to the content of the email.

Accordingly, the company had no right to claim ownership over the content of the emails in question or to access them.

‘Third party employment’ agreements are common with both senior executive and specialist staff.  This case illustrates an important planning point: it is sensible to ensure that if employment arrangements involving external companies are involved, a contractual right to retain all emails passed through your company’s servers or relating to the company’s business is obtained.