In Heavy Transport N V v Adkins, a case in which a company was asking for the right to inspect emails held by its former CEO, the High Court has held that there is no property in the content of an email.
In making its judgment, the Court analysed the various potential options as to ownership of an email, and concluded that all of them would be unworkable in practice.
For example, if title passed to the recipient when an email is sent, the recipient would have the right to require the sender to delete it, and the only person entitled to the email would be the person who had most recently received it. Given that an email could have multiple recipients, simultaneously or consecutively, this option would be unrealistic and impractical. The Court held that satisfactory protection against misuse of information was already available through the laws relating to copyright and confidential information, as well as specific contractual obligations.
The ruling in this case is a reminder to employers that they do not have a general proprietary right to the content of emails held by employees, contractors and agents. This highlights the importance of clearly stating rights and obligations relating to work emails in contracts of employment or other contractual documentation and of backing up emails centrally.