Who (Really) Owns Your Website?

Who (Really) Owns Your Website?

Welcome to the brave new world of cheap, fast and easy websites. You can have one up and running for little investment in no time. You can even do it yourself. Or, if you’re not so inclined, you can have someone do it for you with barely more than the click of a button.

Imagine: one day, no website… the next day: voilà! Complete site, with your logo and everything.

Most times you get awesome perks, too, like hosting and a billion email addresses. And most times it’s for a monthly fee that you can cough up even if you’re a broke-ass startup, solo or small-small business.

The problem with all that goodness is that when it goes bad, it goes really, really bad. And I’m not talking about downtime-bad. Or my-site-got-hacked-bad. Or even my-form-hasn’t-worked-in-six-months-and-nobody-told-me-bad.

I’m talking you don’t even own your website bad.

And the bad thing about… well, all that badness, is that you will probably only find out the day that you decide to upgrade to a better site with a better (or another) developer.

I’ve seen it happen. Like, a lot.

In fact, it happened to one of my current clients when they finally decided to lose their old and relatively unhelpful developer and hire us.

I’ll tell you that story now so you can prevent it from happening to you – or at least be prepared for the eventuality.

A Monthly Fee Does Not Mean You Own The Site

My client paid their setup fee. They paid their monthly “maintenance” fees. In fact, my client was probably the perfect client for their type of developer and that’s the kind of client who goes away and leaves the site alone to float around the internet until such time as someone may stumble on it and find it useful.

I stumbled on it.

I found my client’s hours listed on it.

Alas, I did not find it particularly useful, because I showed up at my client’s doorstep during their stated business hours only to find out that they were closed. Because nobody at my client’s office had access to change the incorrect hours and nobody had gone to the effort of calling the developer and making sure the change got done.

So we got to talking, which got to them complaining about a lot of things, including poor search rank among others, and they decided to hire us to make it better.

But when we contacted their prior developer for FTP access to the site so we could grab a copy and figure out what parts could be repurposed, we learned who really owned the site.

Hint: it wasn’t our client.

Turns out our client hadn’t actually paid for a website. They had paid for… I suppose you could call it a “web presence” as long as they continued to pay their monthly fees. They did not own the copy. They did not own the photos. They did not own the graphics.

In a near-catastrophe we also found out they didn’t even own their domain name. Fortunately the developer said he would transfer it to them, but the transfer process can take several days to a week, which means total blackout for my client’s website.

It also means a total do-over, where we write, design, build and collect photos and other assets from scratch. Too bad they spent years’ worth of fees not having a website.

I suppose the silver lining is that the site wasn’t terribly good to begin with, so it wasn’t a tragic loss. But it certainly made more work and ended up costing them more in the end, not to mention the possible week of down time that they’ll suffer as a result.

Paying Up Front Does Not Mean You Own The Website, Either

Lest you think you’re immune to such horrors because you paid a “real” developer to build your site – maybe even an expensive one – you might be in for a rude awakening one day.

This is less common but I’ve seen it happen, too.

Sometimes designers retain ownership of their designs so while you think you’ve just paid for a website, you’ve essentially only licensed it – as long as you stay with that developer.

The day you decide to hire a new developer, your old guy will package up your site and send it to you – in nice big, empty blocks of text.

Where did the pretty colors go? Where are all the lovely backgrounds and graphics?

In your designer’s portfolio, that’s where.

That may not be a crisis if you were planning on a total makeover anyway, but what if you simply wanted some content updates and found a more reliable person to do it? What if you found a new developer with more SEO expertise, or better copywriting skills?

You’d better hope they have a designer, that’s what.

Good web design isn’t cheap. If you invest in it but can’t take it with you, you might just find yourself doubling your budget unnecessarily.

Know The Risks, Avoid The Pitfalls

If you don’t have a lot of money and you’re perfectly ok with a small monthly fee for a site you don’t own and will toss when you have the budget to do it over, then that’s fine.

But know ahead of time what you may be facing down the line so it’s not an unpleasant surprise.

A lot of DIY and inexpensive web services are pay-and-throw-away. You may have a site, but that site is only as good as your last credit card payment. Sometimes you own the content. Sometimes you don’t. Almost never will you own the graphics and template elements.

Be sure that you understand the limitations before you buy.

As for the “but I hired a real designer and he still took my site” scenario, there’s a very simple solution to that: read the contract.

In all of our contracts we make it clear that we do not retain ownership of any materials that we produce for the client. That includes logos, website designs, custom photography, illustrations or any manner of marketing and branding materials.

Once our clients pay for their product, they own their product.

Designers who retain ownership will say so in their contracts. If you’re ok with that stipulation, sign away. Just do it with your eyes open. Otherwise, find a designer and developer who offers work-for-hire so you know you can take whatever you pay for with you when you go.

Never, never, never… never never assume that you know who owns your site. Read the fine print. Be sure you understand who owns everything from the written copy to the special fonts to the photos and background patterns.

Never, never, never… never never pay a single cent for a website without a written contract. A handshake is not good enough. A verbal promise is not good enough. An email is not good enough.

A really unscrupulous person will make your life miserable no matter what, but you can be pretty sure that a legitimate service provider will offer their service promises and guarantees in writing.

Do you know who owns your website? Do you really know? Go get your contract out right now and let me know. It’s worth a minute to figure it out so it doesn’t haunt you later. And if you’re about to enter into an agreement with a new designer or developer, this is one question you’ll want to ask.

Got any horror stories about your website or other marketing materials that you paid for but found out later didn’t really belong to you? Let me know, and spread the word so we can help others avoid this trap.