You’d think answering the question, “who owns my website?” would be a no-brainer. But, if you’re reading this, chances are you might be in a bit of a pickle.
I used to think that, in the spirit of the law, if you’ve agreed a price for a website and you’ve paid that price for the finished article to the web developer, then surely you own your website - right? It appears this was wishful thinking - perhaps even if you got us to design your website.
Copyright - who owns my content?
Copyright is automatically assigned to the creator of the original work - in this case, your website and all its myriad content. Happy-clap for simplicity? ‘Fraid not. Like all rights, it involves the mitigation of a number of wrongs.
Cast your mind back to your first day of work. Along with signing away your right to lie-in extensively, you’ll undoubtedly have paw-printed a contract saying that whatever special snowflake genius you emit during the course of your working day, is owned by your employer. So, if your site was created by in-house developers, you’re covered. BUT – if your site was created by a subcontractor, check your Ts&Cs. Unless otherwise stipulated, it’s their baby. This may well be the point you regret the directionless reams of email ‘feedback’ you gave them during the last design iteration...
If you’re in England and Wales, have a look at this article about the subject from the Intellectual Property Office.
Who owns the code of my website?
Considering website code is just a right-click away from exposure/theft, protecting it might seem a tad futile. But like first-timers at a line-dancing convention, we like to know where we stand.
The truth is that pretty much all websites are a jumble of what solicitors would call ‘pre-existing works’. This isn’t a bad thing - in fact, it’s a great thing. It means your web developers can deliver a project on time and on budget, instead of reinventing the wheel. But it does mean you can’t own the code because it’s just a variation of something that’s been in common usage for years. Look for phrases like ‘One off perpetual licence’ in your contract. This normally means you can do what you like, other than resell it or attempt to restrict it’s usage by others.
Check out this Quora post for more information on a “Perpetual Licence”, which is often how reputable web development agencies will give you as much control as they can over the coding you paid them to do.
UPDATE April 2016 - Check Out Our Terms Of Business
In the interests of openess and transparency, we published our standard contract here. Clause 17 is the one you need to look at, for the code licencing bit. But if you're a web developer, please don't steal these terms because:
1. That would be wrong, they cost us a few grand to get done, so go pay your own solicitor.
2. They refer to specific business processes (our Secret Sauce) which you ain't using, because we haven't shared that with you.
3. They refer to specific insurance policies which since they were custom built for us aren't covering your lazy arse.
Who owns our website content management system?
Unless you, or your company, are the creators of the original source code, your content management system (CMS) is simply licensed to you in the same way all your other software is. Though if your dev team have customised an Open Source platform like WordPress or Drupal, and you’re itching to add further complexity to the proceedings, you could ask for a one off perpetual licence (see above) for plugins or website code created exclusively for your business. Check out the GNU General Public License pages to find out more.
Tip: Don’t get painted into a corner by nefarious businesses, intent on tying you into a bespoke CMS that you don’t hold the keys to. Even if changing the header or footer is far down your list of priorities, you should be able to if the mood takes you. It could be more straightforward to opt for a widely-used CMS, like the aforementioned Open Source platforms.
‘Surely, it’s mine!’ I hear you cry. ‘We’ve had this domain since the days of dial-up and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org!’ Not necessarily so. Check who registered the domain in the first place. Legally, unless your brand is a registered trademark, it must be logged in your company name, not in that of a designer or colleague.
Essentially, you lease your domain name from your registrar, so clearly you need to hold the reins to this - and keep on top of the registration fees. In doubt? If you have a .uk domain, you can use Nominet, the official registry for UK domain names to check ownership and resolve disputes. If your domain(s) end in anything other than .uk you should use a whois lookup tool, like DNSstuff.
Taking time to review your website ownership also presents a good opportunity to look at your digital housekeeping in general – do you own everything you think you do? Are there aspects of your brand; your logo, your domain or your company name, that you can register as a trademark?
Also, you might be happy with your hosting provider now, but it’s worth checking what your terms are for migrating your website to a different host. In an ideal world, we shouldn’t need to question the motivations or transparency of our suppliers. But it’s not, so you should.
And if you find, after your retinas have been shrivelled to oblivion in terms and conditions hell, that your website could do with a little more TLC… hold your horses! Before you start searching for ‘web developers near me’ download our eBook: 25 Website Must Haves for Driving Traffic, Leads and Sales.