Does your employer own your LinkedIn contacts?

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There was an interesting piece in this weekend’s FT, in the Q&A section (see here). A reader asks if the ‘contact lists’ held by his employees on LinkedIn are actually owned by his business.

This is a timely question and one that I suspect many employers would be interested in. LinkedIn, and other social networks, are being increasingly used for business networking. Either by individuals of their own initiative or through encouragement from their employer.

The former case is becoming particularly common. We’ve noted before that people use different social networks for different purposes (see post here) and it’s becoming commonplace for people to want a place where they can network with their business colleagues online, in the same way that they might use Facebook, MySpace, Flickr or another service to network with friends.

We also see the latter case. Employees specifically encouraging their staff to  build large networks on LinkedIn and the like, then to use these networks as a route to sales, or as a source of new candidates for roles. It is this latter case that the FT question was about, and the response from the lawyer may come as a surprise to many people who build up their contacts in this way.

I think you have a strong argument that you do own the “database” of contacts, particularly as the internet medium through which the sites are accessed are owned by you and the networking is done as part and parcel of the employees’ contractual duties.

The argument is that a database of contacts that an employee builds up as part of their job role will belong to the employer they are working for at the time. In these cases the database would be held on the employer premises (or more likely on their network). The lawyer suggests that contacts built up through LinkedIn could be no different, especially as they have been built during company time and through the firm’s resources (a firm laptop maybe or via the firm’s network connection).

In this case the entire contact set would be owned by the employer, much in the same way that, theoretically at least, your Rolodex and business-card collection is also owned by your employer.

Of course it would be interesting to see what would ever happen if a case like this came to trial, I suspect it may not be as easy as this to ascertain ownership of a social network contacts list.

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