Who owns the CEO’s emails?

A UK court has found that a company does not own its CEO’s emails if they are not held on its servers.

A former CEO of a UK company had his company emails automatically forwarded to his personal email address. A dispute arose around the construction of a 50,000 dead weight tonnage vessel, relating to failures to meet two contract milestones, and liability to pay sums totalling US$30 million. There was evidence that the CEO had agreed to a separate arrangement and the company wanted access to his emails. The emails were not on the company’s servers, because once a message was forwarded, it was deleted from its servers.

The UK court was asked to decide on the narrow question of whether the company had any claim to ownership of the content of the CEO’s emails. It found the company had no right to the content, denying it access to the CEO’s emails. Australian courts would probably have arrived at a similar conclusion, so businesses should try and ensure that emails are located on their servers rather than on those of a third party. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, even in the digital era.

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