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Staff Emails Are Not Owned By Firms, UK Judge Rules 111

Qedward writes "A high court judge has ruled that companies do not have a general claim of ownership of the content contained in staff emails. The decision creates a potential legal minefield for the terms of staff contracts and an administrative nightmare for IT teams running email servers, back up and storage. The judge ruled businesses do not have an 'enforceable proprietary claim' to staff email content unless that content can be considered to be confidential information belonging to a business, unless business copyright applies to the content, or unless the business has a contractual right of ownership over the content. Justice Edwards-Stuart added it was 'quite impractical and unrealistic' to determine that ownership of the content of emails either belongs exclusively to the creator or the recipient of an email."
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Staff Emails Are Not Owned By Firms, UK Judge Rules

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  • Self-defating (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 09, 2012 @08:59AM (#41931211)

    There will be but one consequence of this: Employers will add the requisite language to contract or IT/acceptable use policy. Many already have this. Absent organized/union efforts, few will refuse. Status quo re-established.

  • by Neil_Brown ( 1568845 ) on Friday November 09, 2012 @09:04AM (#41931241) Homepage

    The court did not hold that "email are not owned by firms" as such. Rather, it was a more nuanced (and, in my opinion, very sensible) ruling, albeit one which does not seem to me to extend established law very much.

    The ruling essentially holds that only property is capable of ownership — an established position, although, confusingly, capability of being owned is one of the tests as to whether something is capable of being property; defining "property" is no easy task. The court considered whether an email constituted "property" or not, and held that, unless the content of an email was the subject of copyright (a property right), or else constituted confidential information, an email is not intrinsically property — an established position again, to my mind.

    The court also held that, even where there was no property in an email, an agreement as to how something should be treated could be binding — I can agree that I must deliver to you any email originating from you which I have on my computer, irrespective of the issue of property and ownership.

    If nothing else, this seems to me to be a pretty common sense outcome. If employment contracts do not already reflect this position, I would expect employers to look to amending them pretty quickly.

  • by Neil_Brown ( 1568845 ) on Friday November 09, 2012 @09:34AM (#41931497) Homepage

    Here is an analogy: you are a guest at somebody's house, you use their ink and their paper and you write a note. The ink and paper belongs to the your host, not to you. You can claim that the message is yours, but every bit of media belongs to the owner of the house.

    I see the case here, and the general principle behind it, as fully agreeing with you. The difference is that, in the case of your handwritten note, the paper and ink are capable of ownership. In the case of an email, the bits and bytes behind it are not — the email itself is not capable of ownership, and thus cannot be owned. Rather, it is the copyright subsisting in the work comprising the message which is owned. A physical world / digital world difference, to my mind, which leads to the same result.

    bits and bytes, regardless of how they are stored or communicated to other computers, they are property of the company.

    This is where we see a difference, I think — my view is that "bits and bytes" are not, in themselves, cannot be property, and thus cannot be owned (or else cannot be owned, and thus are incapable of being property...). Copyright is a mechanism for establishing a right of ownership which relates closely to that arrangement of bits and bytes, but does not mean ownership of those bits and bytes.

  • Re:Self-defating (Score:4, Insightful)

    by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Friday November 09, 2012 @09:41AM (#41931555)

    Which would change nothing. I realise reading the article might be too much learning for you, but you could try the summary.

  • by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Friday November 09, 2012 @10:19AM (#41931955)

    So you are saying that if I write an email on my company's time then that email is the property of my company? Thus if I send that email to your work address then it is still the property of my company and hence your company has no legal right to a demand another copy of it.

    So you are agreeing with the judge's decision.

We cannot command nature except by obeying her. -- Sir Francis Bacon