Who owns the contents of an email?

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Fairstar Heavy Transport -v- Philip Adkins

Fairstar was an overseas transportation company.  In May 2011, the chief executive Philip Adkins negotiated a deal for the construction of two new ships with a Chinese shipyard.  Subsequently Fairstar incurred heavy liabilities.  In July 2012 new owners acquired Fairstar.  Mr Adkins charged Fairstar for his time through a service company.  All Adkins’ emails were automatically forwarded by Fairstar’s server to Mr Adkin’s private email address and then deleted.  Fairstar urgently needed copies of Adkins’ emails to investigate their liabilities to the Chinese shipyard.  Mr Adkins refused to divulge them.

Held

  1. This claim was not (and could not be) brought in the English Court in copyright nor on the basis of any contractual obligations (Adkins had an agreement with Fairstar that any disputes would be resolved in the Dutch courts).
  2. The claim was therefore only brought on the basis that Fairstar had a legitimate property interest in the contents of the email.  The judge ruled as a matter of law that the content of an email is merely information.  He remarked that information cannot be property.  Application rejected.

Commentary

Normally the company would have claimed that it owned copyright in the emails, and would have alternatively relied upon express provisions of its services contract with Mr Adkins.  Because of difficulties with the Dutch jurisdiction, the English court could not consider these issues.  The claim was therefore very narrowly restricted to a demand for “information” which failed.

Given that contracts with service companies are very common in construction and engineering, it is worth considering whether:

(a)        it is a good idea to agree a non-English jurisdiction clause; and also

(b)        whether it is also a good idea to allow important emails to be deleted from one’s own servers.

For further information, help or advice on Construction and Engineering issues please contact Rob Langley on 0191 211 7975.