Who Owns Your Address Book?

Friend of the ‘Lab Dan McCall sent this post my way last week.

The issue in question is whether your LinkedIn contacts could be considered the property of your employer, should you decide to part ways.

This is an intriguing question, considering:

  • LinkedIn’s self-described purpose as a “professional network”.
  • People use LinkedIn to keep track of their business contacts, sometimes from work computers.
  • Most networks on LinkedIn include a hodge-podge of contacts, friends and acquaintances made at various points during a person’s career both at the current employer and at prior employers.

I did some digging, and it seems there has already been some precedent established, at least in the UK. That case seemed to hinge on the timing and usage of the contacts, i.e. they were made near the end of the employee’s tenure, which ended on his accord, and they were subsequently used to start up his own competing business.

So, this points to a clear intent to use contacts against the former employer, but I’m sure future cases won’t be as clear cut. I tried to find some cases that handled the use of Rolodexes by former employees, since that would seem to point to a precedent.

There seems to be a big gray area here though. When hiring certain types of positions, e.g. sales, employers frequently judge candidates based heavily on their contacts. And how do you really categorize a business versus a personal contact.

Take a look at your LinkedIn/Facebook/MySpace contacts, your address book or business card Rolodex, and try to segment them into business and personal. There’s bound to be some overlap. Now, try to segment all the business contacts into job buckets. Again, it’s not that easy.

I tend to agree that the legal precedent will evolve around this issue rapidly over the next five years, much as the law has coalesced around how to handle corporate email. It’s only a matter of time before there is a high profile case to set the standard.

So, what do you think? I’m guessing pretty much everyone thinks their address book is personal, which is how I feel. Still I’m interested to get your thoughts and ideas on how this will play out in the future.

Find the comments.

AboutJake

a.k.a.:jkuramot

4 comments

  1. I think that question harks back to John Locke, and the definition of property itself:

    http://bexhuff.com/2007/08/who-owns-relationship

    Briefly, it goes like this:

    * neither party can claim the “right” to the information about a relationship, but
    * anybody who spends time and energy collecting that information has some right to their collection of data.

    Therefore, if you maintained your relationships on company time, your company paid to maintain that data. Therefore, your company has legitimate rights to access it… although not to own it.

  2. I would expect that many companies do not want you keeping your contacts in LinkedIn anyway – company information held outside the company, very much like email. I personally only use LinkedIn for personal contacts.

  3. That's a messy solution, but it's probably fair. I just see this issue going all kinds of bad (like RIAA lawsuits); I've frequently thought that judges need to get in-depth training in order to hear technical cases or that we need to get specialized judges whose only cases are technical in nature.

    That's a different post.

  4. Maybe, but to close a deal or get in the door for the company, they realistically expect you to use personal contacts. That's sales. So, what's the difference between a friend you met in college and also do business with, and someone you met through business who turns out to be a friend?

    If you said “where the relationship begins”, then the company shouldn't mine your personal contacts or those you made in the past working at other companies.

    Maybe this sounds obvious, but it's not. Like I said in the post, certain positions are filled based on contacts, with no regard for how they were made.

    Very messy.

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