First UK legal challenge by a company to an ex-employee's right to use its LinkedIn contacts goes in favour of the employer.
Millions of us use professional network LinkedIn as a sales, marketing and database tool, either through personal profiles or LinkedIn groups. Some of us have a few contacts, while others have hundreds – but the ownership of these on the site has been the subject of legal debate in the UK and abroad.
The issue came before the high court this July in the case of Whitmar Publications Limited v Gamage. It is believed to be the first time a UK court has addressed the status of LinkedIn contacts. Whitmar sought an injunction against ex-employees who used the company's LinkedIn group contacts, which one of the employees had maintained on behalf of the company, to market the launch of a rival business.
The court granted an interim injunction preventing the employees using the company's contacts, saying this was a misuse of "confidential information" and a breach of the implied duty of good faith. In granting this the court believes there is a good chance of the company succeeding at trial.
So, do LinkedIn contacts created during a period of employment amount to confidential information? The law states that general contact details available from the public domain cannot constitute confidential information, but private contact information gained during your employment is a different matter.
It has been held that direct dial telephone numbers and email addresses stored on your work IT systems can be classified as confidential information, and as such are owned by your employer. The big difference with LinkedIn is that ownership of the account is personal to the account holder under LinkedIn's own terms and conditions. And this data, of course, is stored on LinkedIn servers, not that of your employer's.
Until further rulings, the position appears to be:
1. If the contacts are in the name of your personal account (ie, you are not maintaining a LinkedIn group on behalf of your employer) you are likely to be in a stronger position.
2. If the contacts amount to private information gained during your employment, such as emails and direct dial telephone numbers, this could diminish your position.
3. If you have compiled your contacts from uploaded email addresses at work, or your employer has in some other way provided you with business contacts and/or paid for a premium listing, a claim for ownership is likely to be more in your employer's favour.
The law in this area is still grey and enforcement is tricky for an employer, especially where there is a mix of personal and private contacts on one account, and where you have private log-in details. It is for this reason that employers increasingly now have a social media policy governing what belongs to whom on LinkedIn and other social media platforms to help put them in a stronger position. If you are moving jobs, you may wish to read carefully what policy, if any, your old and new employers have in this regard.
Do you think it is right that your LinkedIn business contacts can be protected by your employer, or do you believe ownership should remain in your control no matter what?