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Some introduction to preface: I do web design/development for a small company in Missouri. My employment contract has no language regarding who owns the work I do internally, nothing about intellectual property, and no non-compete (very irresponsible, if you ask me...). The other designer (who had an identical contract) just left for another job, and she cleaned out her files, took every template she made for website proposals, even downloaded and erased the custom WordPress theme we use off our company servers.

Can my company press her to obtain that property back, legally? Or does she own it? Is there such a thing as implied ownership if she never signed anything?

A couple things to consider: these items were created using company equipment (a company-provided Mac and Adobe software licensed by the company), and were created on paid company time for use within the scope of company projects. She wants to take the templates, replace logos and names, and use them in her portfolio and possibly at her new job.

Anyone have any knowledge on this, or legislation/text for me to go research?

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    You need proper legal advice I am afraid, so I VTC for that reason. And I strongly urge you to do that instead of trying to navigate such complex topic as copyright law on your own, as getting it wrong can turn life-ruining expensive. Jun 8 '20 at 21:19
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    As written this is off-topic as you're asking for a specific legal interpretation of your situation. If you were to generalise this to "who owns my work in the absence of a written agreement?" it would be answerable (by referring to "work for hire") and we could use such a general question on this site.
    – Lilienthal
    Jun 8 '20 at 21:23
  • @Lilienthal care to edit..? I think I got my answer below in regards to my specific situation in MO, so if you see a benefit to generalizing it to use on the site perhaps you could do it better than me! Jun 8 '20 at 21:26
  • Is this for your own personal curiosity? I mean, you're not senior management or legal or such. What's your interest in the answer?
    – Kevin
    Jun 8 '20 at 22:01
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    Do the servers have backups? If yes, restore from those. Jun 9 '20 at 21:48
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Can my company press her to obtain that property back, legally? Or does she own it? Is there such a thing as implied ownership if she never signed anything?

You mentioned Missouri which is a state where unless there was some prior agreement between your company and this employee, the company owns the rights to the intellectual property. It would be up to your company's lawyers to pursue any legal avenue to prevent the former employee from using this property or to force them to pay for any damages incurred (i.e. deleting data from the company's servers that cannot be recovered). If your IT department performs regular backups, they should have no issue recovering the lost data.

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  • I am the company's IT department lol. The site files aren't a big deal, but the proposal template is a headache. Thanks for the input though! Do you have sources for your statement about Missouri laws? Jun 8 '20 at 20:58
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    @DannytheHopeless and now you understand the roll backups can play. At the moment you‘re the one who should be punished for not doing your job.
    – morbo
    Jun 8 '20 at 21:22
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    @morbo That's victim blaming. We have one person being careless, but another person taking criminal actions.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 8 '20 at 21:33
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    @gnasher729 im not victim blaming, i never said it was they‘re fault and they deserved it, i said they didn‘t do their job as the local ‚it guy‘.
    – morbo
    Jun 8 '20 at 21:36
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    @DannytheHopeless This would fall under the "work for hire" section of the Copyright Act en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_for_hire which applies to all states.
    – sf02
    Jun 9 '20 at 14:07
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I suggest your company gets a lawyer, who will take every single penny that she owns. Your company owns the copyright on everything she wrote as part of her employment, so we start with copyright infringement. What she has done falls most likely under computer hacking laws (she may have had access to the computers in question, but intentional destruction clearly exceeds her access rights), which would be criminal, and of course she is responsible for any damage caused.

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  • Its more likely trade secrets and as some one else said in US law if the contract Is silent your employer does own what you do that is related to your Job - its descended from English law about masters and servants Jun 8 '20 at 22:37
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It's worth noting that, whether or not what she did is a criminal offense, she can certainly be legally pressed in civil court - namely, that anyone can sue anyone else. And making matters worse, while you're entitled to a free public defender in criminal cases, that's not the case in civil court. You're generally either paying someone or self-representing (a horrible idea.)

Imagine you're in the shoes of your company's upper management. You talk with legal, and let's say for arguments sake that legal tells you, "Actually she didn't break any laws."

... you now have two choices:

  • Carry on, and hire people to create from scratch what she deleted
  • Press forward in a legal battle anyways, knowing full well the ex-employee probably doesn't have a huge amount of money to afford attorney fees - with the idea of settling out-of-court for the return of the files she deleted (and possibly minimal damages).

Which would you go with? Especially if you (in upper management) are nursing a grudge with what this ex-employee did.

(And that's if it's clear-cut that no terms were violated. If she's legally culpable, or even if it's merely murky, you can darned well bet the company's going to pursue legal action.)

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