A judge has ruled that organisations do not have an "enforceable proprietary claim" to the contents of emails held by staff – unless the content of the emails can be considered confidential information belonging to the organisation, the email contains copyrighted information, or the organisation has a 'contractual right of ownership' over the email's content.
"I can find no practical basis for holding that there should be property in the content of an email, even if I thought that it was otherwise open to me to do so," said Justice Edwards-Stuart
The judge added: "To the extent that people require protection against the misuse of information contained in emails, in my judgment satisfactory protection is provided under English law either by the equitable jurisdiction to which I have referred in relation to confidential information (or by contract, where there is one) or, where applicable, the law of copyright. There are no compelling practical reasons that support the existence of a proprietary right – indeed, practical considerations militate against it."
Justice Edwards-Stuart was ruling in a case involving a shipping company, Fairstar Heavy Transport, and its former CEO, Philip Adkins.
According to law firm Pinsent Masons, Fairstar had won a court order preventing Adkins from deleting certain emails that had been forwarded to him from the company's servers. Although Adkins had been working for Fairstar he was actually under contract to do so by a separate company, Cadenza Management. Adkins lost his job as CEO when Fairstar was acquired by a rival.
After a dispute over a shipbuilding contract, the company argued that it required access to the contents of Adkins' emails. The company claimed in court – mystifyingly – that emails forwarded via its servers to Adkins' Cadenza account when he worked as CEO were automatically deleted from the company's servers.
It claimed it needed access to the emails to settle the shipbuilding dispute, as well as to aid an investigation by the Oslo Stock Exchange.
But Justice Edwards-Stuart ruled that the company had no right over the ownership of the email content and therefore rejected Fairstar's request for an independent inspection of Adkins' emails to take place.
"In a different situation would parties who had formerly communicated with each other on a regular basis by email but had since fallen out, have the right to demand access to each other's servers in order to see to whom emails that they had sent had been forwarded?," asked Edwards-Stuart.
"If the answer to questions such as these is No, then I have difficulty in seeing what advantage there might be if it were to be held that there was a shared proprietary right in the content of emails: it would be of little or no value. But if the answer was yes, the ramifications would be considerable and, I would have thought, by no means beneficial."