In the High Court case, Pennwell Publishing (UK) Ltd v Ornstein and others  IRLR 700, it has been held that contact lists contained on a program, which is part of the employer’s email system, are the property of the employer and may not be copied or moved in their entirety by employees for use outside their employment or after their employment comes to an end.
Mr Isles, a senior employee of the company, had maintained a contact list over many years on his employer's computer system. Although the list contained personal contacts and business contacts who pre-dated Mr Isles’ employment with Pennwell, it also contained a large number of contacts that Mr Isles had used or added during his employment.
However, the Court did imply a term that the employee could, at the end of the employment, make a copy of their own personal contacts and remove them from the employer's system.
Impact on employers
We would advise (and the Court commented that it is highly desirable) that employers should have clear IT policies so they do not have to rely on implied contractual terms and to avoid arguments about who owns which parts of any contact list or other database.
Impact on IT policies in relation to personal content such as contact details
IT policies should state:
- whether employees are entitled to use the employer’s system to store, send or receive personal files or emails;
- If they are, whether they are expected to keep these separate from work-related material e.g. in separate folders;
- whether employees are entitled to use the employer's IT systems to access personal email accounts and, if so, the terms of access; and
- what information stored on the employer’s systems will belong to the employer and what information, if any, will belong to the employee.
An IT policy needs to be effectively communicated to employees, particularly if it has been amended or updated. Ideally it should be referred to in the employees’ contracts of employment.
Pennwell’s email policy, which stated that its email system was only to be used for business purposes, had not been incorporated into Mr Isles' contract. If it had been it would have been clear that the contacts list belonged to Pennwell. Nevertheless, the Court held that, even in the absence of a clear policy, the list belonged to Pennwell and Mr Isles was not allowed to copy it in its entirety or take it away.