Your contacts are company property, rules judge

A journalist has been forced to give up contacts built up throughout his career after a judge ruled they belonged to his company.

Junior Isles, a journalist of 17 years, has branded the High Court ruling, which has lost him some 1,000 editorial contacts to his former employer PennWell Publishing, as ‘a sad day for journalists”. Isles had exported contacts from his own personal computer to a company-owned Outlook email address computer file.

Following the ruling, Isles can only take back copies of certain contacts which he could prove were made prior to his working at PennWell plus private, non work-related contacts, and those made since he left the company.

All contacts made during his employment and those he could not recall if they had been made during his employment are now the property of PennWell, leaving Isles with around 600 names out of a possible 1,600.

Isles’s legal fees are in excess of £30,000, and he was ordered to pay 60 per cent of PennWell’s legal costs which equates to around £135,000.

Mr Justice Fenwick QC said that his decision was influenced by the fact that Isles removed the contents of his address book ‘not for the purpose of maintaining key journalistic contacts’but ‘in order to have the widest possible list of contacts’when he left

PennWell-owned Power Engineering International to become editorial director of Energy Business Group.

Media lawyer Barney Monahan said the case has major implications. ‘Journalists ought to maintain a separate list of contacts from any employer-owned email address book or other database on employer property.

‘It’s worth keeping a personal backup of journalistic contacts entirely separately from any work email system and also to be extremely careful as to what the company’s email policies are and what the contractual position is.”

Isles said: ‘The judge did say that if I had maintained a separate spreadsheet of the names he may have viewed it differently if I hadn’t exported it into a spreadsheet from my email address book.

‘This is a very serious ruling and journalists should be very careful how they store their contacts. If companies do choose to pursue it and journalists haven’t maintained their own copy independently they are in trouble.

Justin Fenwick QC said: ‘ I am satisfied that the list of contacts which Mr Isles downloaded from the Claimant’s Outlook system and converted into the JuniorContacts.xls spreadsheet, comprised the totality of the individuals and organisations with which he had sufficiently regular contact during the course of his employment with PennWell for it to be worthwhile keeping a record of their contact details.

‘Such a list might, in another age, be maintained by his secretary and would undoubtedly have been the property of PennWell.’

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