Court finds LinkedIn accounts belong to business not employee

An employee in the United Kingdom has been ordered to hand over the log-in details of four LinkedIn group accounts to her former employer.  

The employee, Susan Wright, set up the LinkedIn accounts in the course of her employment and also used them for personal reasons.

But the England and Wales High Court found the accounts were the property of her former employer, Whitmar Publications, in a decision which has implications for Australian businesses.

The legal stoush began when three long-term employees of Whitmar, including Wright, resigned on the same day, stating that they were going to establish their own competing company.

Whitmar claimed that in the four months leading up to their resignation the employees tried to solicit some of Whitmar’s clients and employees, used Whitmar’s confidential information to produce media kits and other material, took customer and circulation databases with them and used  LinkedIn groups they had managed on behalf of Whitmar to promote their own business. 

Whitmar demanded Wright provide it with the user name and password for four LinkedIn groups which she accessed and used on computers owned by Whitmar.

Wright refused, claiming that her use was personal and unrelated to Whitmar’s business and she continued to use the LinkedIn account and its contacts after her resignation date.

But the England and Wales High Court granted a permanent injunction to prevent Wright and the other employees from using and disclosing confidential information that was the employer’s property.

Deputy Judge, Peter Leaver QC, said Whitmar had “a very good chance of succeeding at trial’.

The court found the LinkedIn groups were a significant source of contacts for Whitmar, and Wright was ordered to provide Whitmar with the log-in details, so that it could access and amend the database.

Rachel Drew, partner at TressCox Lawyers, told SmartCompany although this was a British case, and decided upon its individual circumstances, the same common law principles apply in an Australian context.

“The general rule is that where an employee uses the employer’s resources to produce something of value, produces that during work hours, or uses it as part of their employment, the employer may claim the intellectual property is theirs,” Drew says.   

She says employers pay wages not just for the employee’s time, but also for any intellectual property their work produces. 

“While there is no restriction on an employee taking their skills or experience from one employer to another, an employer can require any intellectual property of value to be handed over on departure,” Drew says.  

“The employer can also recover any profits made from publishing or promoting materials prepared as part of their employment.”

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