The property torts and disputes about business information

What happens when someone puts his or her electronic documents on another’s computer system, gets locked out and then wants the documents back?

This is a common problem today, and often arises in the context of departing employee disputes. It also engages one of the more interesting developing legal issues within this blog’s domain: do the traditional property torts – trespass, detinue and conversion – protect rights associated with intangible property?

While this could be the subject of a good paper, I’d simply like to point out a couple of developments South and North of the border.

In the United States, the New York Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in Thyroff v. Nationwide Mutual Assurance Company in which it held that the tort of conversion should apply to intangible property – an insurance agent’s customer list in the circumstances in dispute.

There’s no judgement of equivalent strength in Canada yet, but the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court – Trial Division issued a decision in July called HZPC Americas Corp. that is consistent with the direction endorsed in Thyroff. (HZPC has not yet been published on CanLII.) In rejecting the defendant’s motion to strike a conversion claim, the Court challenged the traditional idea that an owner’s ability to control intangible property (including confidential business information) is not sufficient to justify application of the tort. It said:

The Defendants refer to infringement of intellectual property while the Plaintiff refers to conversion of commercial property interests. The Plaintiff’s claim is not based on infringement of a statutory right in intellectual property; but rather is classified by it as a proprietary right in commercial property. It is not necessary for the Plaintiff to plead or rely upon legislative provisions to pursue its claim based on a common law tort. The federal legislation can be viewed as providing additional benefits, and not exhausting a person’s civil remedies.

The Court quoted Professor David Vaver, who says that the traditional view is “pettifoggery” – a sure signal that there will be more on this issue to come.