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Who REALLY OWNS Your Website?

By on May 17, 2013 in Blog, Website Design, Wordpress

When it comes to hiring a person or company to create a website, the customer often assumes that when they hire someone to do the work for them, the customer owns the website. That is simply not the case. Why? Because websites generally consist of creative material and software. According to U.S. copyright law, the creator of a work automatically holds the exclusive copyright to it. Therefore, the only way that copyright may be transferred to a customer is in a signed contract.

In this video and post, I discuss who owns (or doesn’t own your website, your domain name, the content, the software and some things you can do to “protect” yourself.


Not having a contract specifically stating the customer owns the creative work, can and has been the cause of many challenges for people who think they own their website only to find out that not only do they not own it, they have no way of recovering any losses that may incur if the developer goes out of business, quits (doesn’t finish the job), or the job is not done to the client’s satisfaction. In fact, as a customer, you may not have any legal rights to even finish, modify or delete the site without the web designers permission!

On the other hand, if a developer has a unique element (say an application or software platform they created that is proprietary to them) they are not going to give you ownership of that software. It is more likely they will grant you permission to use the software for the life of the website (by a license agreement). To get exclusive rights to such software is possible and likely very expensive.

So then who owns the web design? That depends. The web developer should provide a written agreement giving you design ownership once the site had been completed and paid for. Otherwise it is owned by the creator and licensed to you. If you program the site yourself, you own it. Otherwise get it in writing.

What about text content? You own all content you provide to the web developer to use on your site provided you are the author of such content. That measn any formated, readable, search engine indexable text that shows up on your website is owned by the creator aka the legal author of the site text content. A written agreement giving you content ownership should be included in any “terms” or legal documents prior to hiring the developer.

Who owns the domain name? Again another area that can cause a challenge if you do not know how to “protect” yourself. The best thing to do is always register the domain name yourself using a domain registrar you are comfortable with. WE recommend WECAIDomains as they have been in business more than 7 years and offer good pricing and service.

You can register your own domain name and provide the pertinent information to your web developer when the time come. They will need to add the IP address (or domain name server) to your registrar database. That is how the site will eventually show up on the servers hosting your website. I recommend to my clients to not divulge their passwords or login info if they have several domains in the same account. It is pretty simple to add the info you need by calling the registrar and having them help you add the necessary information. And a good web developer will give you the information you need to do so. If the person doing your website works for you or is someone you trust implicitly then you are probably okay sharing that information.

The point here is to make sure the domain is registered to you, your company or the person who assumes they “own” the site. This will avoid costly delays, legal fees and the possible loss of the brand you worked so hard to build.

When hiring a web developer make sure the person puts the domain in your name with your contact info and that you have access to this information via the registrar. I had a client who was held hostage by the developer who told her that he would let her have use of it for 5 years at a cost of $50 a year. She was using my services to redesign the site and he was not happy. To me that was highway robbery! Registering a domain name these days is generally under $10 for a year.

You can check to see who owns your domain name by visiting: www.WECAIDomains.com and typing in the domain name you think you own.

If you find the domain you thought you “owned” is not in your name then you will need to take steps to get it in our name. To rectify that you must be able to contact the person or company who the domain has been registered with and get them to make the necessary corrections to the registration (provided you have a good relationship with them).

What about photos? Photos are another challenge because they are often acquired from third parties such as stock photo sites. It is always best to use photos you have taken and own, but if you must use third party photos, make sure you have the necessary rights to use them on your website.

And then there’s the issue of third-party software. In most cases the developer passes along the license it obtains from the vendor. That license must cover your proposed use and allow for changes in your business. If the developer owns the software, a license agreement can be a simple and practical solution. The issue of customized software is another area to be concerned with. If you pay for custom development and the contract expressly states that, then you likely have the option to “own” it. However, it may not be worth it. In that case (as in many of the situations stated here) an attorney or legal counsel is necessary. One issue you should consider is whether or not you want or can afford to allow your competitors to also have access to that same software.

It is important to ask the developer what they will use to create your website. If they are programming a site from scratch it is likely they will be the only ones who can update the site. Coding is very complex and developers often use it in place of open source software simply because they have a better chance of retaining the client long term. Okay if you have deep pockets. Not so much if you are a small, start up company that wants a web presence inexpensively and expeditiously.

My company uses WordPress almost exclusively. It is Open Source (free to the public) software that is the framework for many websites these days. We also purchase the rights to wordpress compatible web templates that we use to make the site functional, with specific amenities and tools to manage the site, that provide a look and feel the customer desires. WordPress is extremely easy to maintain, SEO friendly and adaptable to a variety of template changes, plugins and other functionality.

So before you hire your next web designer or outsource your web design project consider the following:

  • Have a written agreement
  • Make sure it is signed by the person you contract to do the work (the contractor or designer)
  • Be sure the following is spelled out: Who owns the “finished assemled work” and that the job contracted is “Work for Hire” or “work made for hire” are included in the contract.


Need a WEBSITE? Hire the Redhead! WEB DESIGN PACKAGES start at just $397.
WE Create it. You Own it!

Call 954.625.6606 or email me at heidi@redheadmarketinginc.com TODAY!


*This post is provided for informational purposes only. This content covers the basics of who owns what when it comes to a website, but it may not cover all scenarios. All information shared here in the blog post and the video should not be considered legal advice, nor should you take action upon this information without first seeking the advice of professional counsel.

Heidi Richards Mooney is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of WE Magazine for Women, a WordPress Web Designer, the author of a dozen books and a social media consultant and trainer. Heidi has interviewed hundreds of experts on Social Media Around the World. In 2003 Heidi was named one of 50 women shaping the Internet by the International Virtual Women’s Chamber of Commerce. In 2009 she was named a Twitter Woman to Follow by Only2Clicks.com. She works with solopreneurs, professionals and small businesses in ecommerce, direct sales and retail. Follow Heidi on Google Plus



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