Website ownership is a complex subject which often does not receive enough attention from business owners, probably due to the technical nature of the matter.
There are many instances where a business owner loses control of their website, and in some cases, forever. Or they may find themselves in a situation where they have to pay a significant ‘ransom’ to their previous developer to be able to access the site which they believed was theirs.
A website is a valuable business asset that represents the brand online, and it is protected by various intellectual property laws, such as trademark, database, and copyright law. Losing control of your website can lead to a number of disastrous consequences, such as loss of property rights, loss of rankings, loss of historical data, and ultimately result in serious financial implications.
The different components of a website
In order to fully understand who owns or controls a website, it is important to understand the elements that make up a website. One part of a website is what a visitor to a web page sees on their screen, and the other part is the technology behind it that makes the website visible online. The first part consists of the text, images, layout, colours, and other visual design elements.
The second part consists of the programming code and the software that support the visual layout, and also the online hosting of the files containing them so they are accessible via the Internet. Most of these elements are governed by copyright law.
You or your web designer?
One of the common misconceptions is that you become an owner of the website elements created by the web designer you contracted and paid to do the work. Usually this is not the case, as the contractor will continue to own the copyright in the product they created, indefinitely, unless stated otherwise in the contract. To complicate the matters even further, some elements of a website cannot be owned, but are licenced to the end user.
The customer should always check the Web Development Agreement, preferably with a specialist lawyer, to ensure that they will in fact retain full control of all website elements designed by the developer even after the contract with the developer terminates. As with anything else, it is up to the customer to understand what it is exactly that they are getting for their money and on what terms.
There are many reported cases where a web development company would offer a low-cost monthly instalment plan to design and host a website, but if a customer terminates, they suddenly find themselves unable to access their website as the rights to it still belong with the developer. A developer might ask for a hefty payment to hand the site over, but failing that the only solution is to rebuild a website from scratch – provided the customer is the registered user of the domain name.
Do you own your domain?
Domain name registration is perhaps the most valuable element of a website. There are many business owners who have unsuspectingly lost access to their domain name, either because they did not renew registration or because they were not the registered owner in the first place. The domain name cannot be owned, it can only be used exclusively for an annual fee. Unfortunately, sometimes an unscrupulous web developer might register the domain name not in the name of the customer but their own name and hold your website hostage.
The easy check on https://www.whois.com/whois/ will confirm if you are in fact a registered user of your domain name. If you are not, immediate action needs to be taken to remedy the situation. Depending on the circumstances of the claim, it may be even necessary to file a domain name dispute with the World Intellectual Property Organisation. If the domain name cannot be recovered, the brand’s online footprint will be erased resulting in a long-lasting damaging effect on the business.
What about the host…
If you are satisfied that you have the rights to your domain name and your website files, another element to consider is web hosting. A hosting company is needed to store your website files on their server from where it will be accessible to online users.
Again, a Hosting Agreement needs to be carefully checked, making sure that you are not being locked into a long-term plan with no termination rights, that the company will assist with moving your files from or to another hosting company, and provide adequate security and a backup of data, to name just a few important points. Again, it is best to check the contract with a specialist lawyer as unwanted consequences are likely to be long-lasting and costly.
To summarise the above, on a practical level a website owner should have the following:
Domain Name registration and annual renewals in place
- A satisfactory Web Development Agreement
- A satisfactory Web Hosting Agreement
- Access details for your website’s admin control panel
- Access details for your website’s hosting account
- Access to any additional software if it was used (such as plugins, theme updates, etc)
- Access to analytical data (such as Google Analytics and Search Console)
If you have any questions about your website please contact us for further information.