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Who Owns The Content of E-Mails Sent in The Course of Business?

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The High Court has recently ruled that it was unable to order a former employee to disclose to a company the content of business e-mails sent and received by him during the time that he was its CEO. In Fairstar Heavy Transport NV v Adkins, the Court dismissed the company’s argument that the content of e mails should be regarded as its property.

hlw Keeble Hawson LogoThe issue arose in the wider context of a dispute over the terms of a high value contract which Mr Adkins had placed with a Chinese Shipyard for a tanker. He was the CEO of a marine transport company incorporated and based in the Netherlands. The company was then bought by a competitor in a hostile takeover and the new owners dismissed Mr Adkins. They then sought to inspect e-mails held by him relating to the contract.

The circumstances of this case are quite unusual and most disputes concerning e-mails relate to the misuse of information contained by former employees who have retained copies. This case did not concern Mr Adkins’ misuse of information but simply about the fact that he refused to disclose their content.

The decision highlights the need for employers to use an e-mail operating system that saves a back up of all e-mails sent and received to its server or to include a provision in staff contracts providing for the disclosure of business e-mail content upon request or on the termination of employment.

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