02 October 2013

Dispute over ownership of LinkedIn information a wake-up call for employers

Employers who allow or require employees to operate LinkedIn accounts and other online resources should make it clear the information in them belongs to the employer and not the employee, following a recent dispute.

Three employees had planned and set up a rival business while working for their employer. They then left and worked in the new business. Their ex-employer claimed they had misused its confidential information and breached its database rights and, in doing so, were in breach of restrictions in their contracts of employment.

Particularly, the employer asked the High Court for an injunction to give it 'exclusive access, management and control' of four groups set up on business networking website LinkedIn and used by one of the ex-employees. It said the groups were operated by the employee as part of her job, so the information in them belonged to the employer. However, the ex-employee and her new company had used the information as if it were theirs, and for the benefit of the new company. Notably, they had used email addresses from the LinkedIn groups to create a database, which they then used to send out press releases promoting the new company.

The ex-employee argued that the groups were personal to her, and 'just a hobby'.

The court found that dealing with the LinkedIn groups had been part of the ex-employee's responsibilities as an employee, and had been operated for the benefit of her previous employer to promote its business - on the company's computers.

It therefore granted an interim injunction, and ruled that on the evidence the employer "had a very good chance of succeeding at trial".

Recommendation

Employers should make it clear to employees which LinkedIn and other business and social network resources, blogs and online forums are operated by the employees in the course of their employment, so that they know what information in them belongs to the employer, and what information is personal. Implementing clear policies and staff training is strongly recommended.

For more information please contact Ian Dawson at Shulmans on 0113 297 7735 or at idawson@shulmans.co.uk, or Lee Stephens on 0113 297 8938 or at lstephens@shulmans.co.uk.

Case ref:

Whitmar Publications Limited v Gamage and Others [2013] EWHC 1881 (Ch)