This may be a mundane question but I cannot find an answer for it, as the law is not my area of expertise.

If an employee is under contract and copies files (on mass to a personal cloud storage) for the purpose of using them at a competitor, in the future, despite that their contract says the files are the companies property, they have clearly broken contracts and the law.

However, if the individual discovers this is breaking their contract and deletes the file before handing in their notice, are they still breaking the law if the files have not been shared or used?

UK and EU law

  • Advisable course of action? Talk to a lawyer. – BlueDogRanch Aug 2 '19 at 23:08

It is still "breaking the law". Any unauthorized copying is a violation of copyright law. It is presumably also a breach of contract. The copyright restriction is not limited to "and then using or sharing". Nor are sanctions resulting from breach of contract limited by the fact that you did not "use or share". The "did not use or share" consideration would only be relevant in terms of any monetary damages the company could seek. I assume when you say that the person discovered that this is breaking the law, it either means that he was unaware that copyright law exists, or was unaware that the contract prohibited copying company IP. In both cases, ignorance of the law is no defense: you are expected to know copyright law, you are expected to have read and understood the terms of the contract before agreeing to it.

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  • Thank you for your response, extremely informative for a layman like myself. I am not the employee the scenario refers too but a concerned supervisor of the rather foolish individual in the same company. You are correct in your second assumption. – Comte Aug 7 '19 at 7:46
  • In case anyone is reading this in the future. The employee did not leave after the company for the new employer due to a counter offer. Instead the employee received a promotion and pay rise with the counter offer. The file transfers were not investigated, which they would have been had the employee left, as is protocol. The advice I relayed to them from here I believe helped. Even so very fortunate individual. – Comte Sep 9 '19 at 21:41

In the circumstances described it seems likely the deletion of the files will be (1) a breach of contract with possibly serious damages (depending on consequences of deletion) and (2) a criminal offence under s3 Unauthorised acts with intent to impair Computer Misuse Act 1990.

One example case is R v Steffan Needham, reported by The Register):

The "embittered" IT consultant, of Atherton, near Wigan, in Greater Manchester, got hold of a former colleague's AWS login and destroyed what police and prosecutors claimed was £500,000 worth of business-critical data.

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  • Thank you for your response. However we are talking about copied data not the original. However this is interesting information too. – Comte Aug 7 '19 at 7:49

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