Who owns your LinkedIn and Outlook contact lists?

I just read an article on Forbes that has gotten me thinking.  Basically, the article reports that a UK court ruled that a company owns the LinkedIn contacts of a former employee who used the contacts to steal clients from the company.   If you read the article, you’ll see that the facts of the case are unclear.   The article discusses the principle, not the facts.  Let’s paint some pictures:

Scenario Number One:

Joe is hired for Business Development at ABC Company.  They tell him to open a LinkedIn account, start networking, find customers.  He does so.  Using the computer the company provided him with, he gets his friends to join his LinkedIn network, as well as vendors, colleagues, and potential customers.  Anyone he meets, talks to or knows is invited to join his network.

Joe quits.  He did not sign a non-compete.  From home he accesses the LinkedIn account and starts marketing to his LinkedIn network, including going after ABC customers.  ABC sues.

Here’s the issue:  Any work you do on a company computer is the company’s property.  In this case, they paid Joe to create his LinkedIn network.  So I can see them saying that it is there property.  Problem is, there was no non-compete.  So the entire issue is meaningless.  OK, so Joe doesn’t send a message through LinkedIn to ABC’s customers.  He sends an e-mail because he would sync his Outlook folder to his cell and has all their contact information literally at his fingertips.  True, the Outlook program belonged to ABC, but the e-mail addresses and, for that matter, phone numbers, are all in the public domain.  So what’s the issue?  How can there be “ownership” of something that is available to everyone?

Scenario Number Two:

Same as above, only there is a non-compete.  Again, ownership over LinkedIn or Outlook contacts is irrelevant.  Joe can’t contact ABC’s customers until the non-compete is no longer in effect.  It doesn’t matter who owns the lists.  If he contacts them, he’s violated the contract and should be sued.  End of story.

Recently, I taught a class on LinkedIn as part of a course I give on Professional Development at a local New York school.  I told my students three things:

First, the best way to find a job is through networking and the best networking tool is LinkedIn.

Second, the beauty of LinkedIn is that you are technically posting a “profile,” not a “resume.”  Your purpose is to build your network, not to get a job.  So, unlike positing a resume on-line on a site like Monster or Hot Jobs, if your boss finds it he or she will not assume you are looking for a new job.  Of course, if you note under your name on LinkedIn that you are “Seeking opportunities in …” that’s a different matter.  But if it’s just your profile, it’s just your profile.

And third, the network you build on LinkedIn is yours.  It’s not like your office Outlook folder which belongs to the company.  That you should not take with you when you leave.  It resides on the company’s computer or server.  LinkedIn resides on the Internet.  The company does not own the Internet.  You control the LinkedIn account.  You have the password.  You created the account.  You agreed to the Terms of Service.  Technically, you “signed” a contract with LinkedIn.  You took all the legal steps.  The company did nothing.  It belongs to you.  It is not a company account.  They did not create it and give you access to it.  You created it and allowed them to benefit from it.

So my conclusion is, LinkedIn is your; Outlook is theirs!  And don’t violate a non-compete…