A publishing company is suing a journalist for ownership of his contacts, in a move which could set a precedent on what constitutes "company property".
Publisher PennWell was in the High Court this week suing former managing editor of Power Engineering International, Junior Isles, alleging that he had removed company property when he stopped working for them.
Isles, a journalist of 17 years, worked for the magazine for nine years and left to help set up a rival company, Energy Business Group. The court heard that he used his sources'
details, which had been stored on the company computer, to publicise the launch of the business.
Power Engineering International has already successfully sued two other former employees, Nick Ornstein and Dan Noyau, whose contacts were sales-related.
PennWell argued in court that because a document named "Junior Contacts" was created and maintained on a company computer, it is company property.
Isles's defence lawyer, Korieh Duodu of David Price Solicitors & Advocates, argued that journalists'
contacts should be treated differently from the other employees' contacts, which can be viewed as commercial property because they were used for sales calls.
In his opening statement, Duodu said: "The reason Mr Isles is here today is because he is being forced to give up his contact list — the crucial tool with which he does his work — or his lifeblood as one witness has described it, by a former employer who wants to make sure that having left them he is not able to continue as a force in the industry."
Duodu also argued that PennWells's refusal to allow Isles to use his contacts list was an infringement of his human rights of freedom of speech.
The lawyer representing PennWell told the court: "[Isles] purchased a new computer and handed back his old computer.
PennWell Publishing says because Junior Isles gained the contacts through working for them, the list belongs to the company.
"We loaded the material for purposes of his work (prior to departure) but we didn't know he was involved in the new company.
His employment ended on 8 December, at which point we would have expected him to have deleted it.
"The important issue is, in fact, the composition of the list itself as a document.
We say that is our property. There is a file created on a piece of software called Outlook which had its origins on the claimant's computer systems, at the claimant's work, on a system provided for [Isles's] performance of his duties.
"The file that is described as ‘Junior Contacts.xls' is an exported back-up from that particular piece of software.
We say that this is something which is ours. It was maintained and created in the course of the performance of [Isles's] duties. I do not seek to stop [Isles] from exploiting his contacts.
[But] he can't have the composite body of material."
Reade emphasised that the company would have taken the same position in the case of a conventional paper contacts book. He said: "If, in the course of his work, there were new pages in the Filofax, we would say they would be ours, not his."
Duodu argued that PennWell had behaved in a hypocritical manner, because it had employed him from a previous job, and he had taken the contacts gained from that job with him to PennWell.
The case was due to conclude this week. For the latest, see pressgazette.co.uk.