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Who (Really) Owns Your Website?

By September 20, 2013June 29th, 2015Website Design & Marketing
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.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Hey Carol,

    Luckily this sort of thing hasn’t happened to me before. First off, I started blogging as a hobby (My dad had already designed websites, so I was a bit interested in doing it all on my own).

    I started out with Blogger, so not much work there. Lot of free templates to use (many of them were totally free – except for a link to the theme owner in the footer).

    I have hired designers in the past, especially for designing eBook covers, logos etc. In a way, it’s good to outsource (sure, I could take time, learn designing and did it my own, which I did later on. Or I could just hire a known designer to do the work – design a professional logo/eBook cover. And it worked).

    But, like you mentioned, when we hire others online, always make sure that the content created/logo designed/any other work done belongs to us, and us only. We are paying for both the job and the content.

    I have heard of experiences shared by other bloggers – particularly Blogger users. Google may unexpectedly take down your blog (they have a better policy now. So, if there are any mistakes, you can report it immediately and get it fixed). But, even if we have a custom domain with Blogger, we don’t completely own the website. Google provides free hosting – hence they own the blog too.

    Anyways, nice post, Carol 🙂 People need to be reminded of these things. Never to be “tricked” by their own ignorance (or lack of patience to read the contract).

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      Hi Jeevan,

      You made a good point about Blogger. Since you don’t actually own it (not the platform anyway) and like you said, Google gives you a bunch of free stuff, Google can also take away that free stuff. While that would not be ideal for a business site, I think that they are probably pretty clear about their rules when you sign up. At least you own your content so you can move to another platform if you need to. But you would still have to start over with a new template/design wherever you go. Much like in WordPress, you can buy a theme and own it, and use it no matter where you put your WordPress site – but you can’t take that theme to Drupal. So there are shades of gray in there.

      But it’s definitely important to know first off, that you own your domain name (that’s a whole branding and SEO nightmare if you don’t) and secondly that if you hire someone to build a site, then you fire them – that doesn’t mean your site disappears.

      yes, always read the contracts!

  • Hi Carol,
    What is your opinion of WordPress? Right now, it is doing everything I need it to do, but I’m wondering if it will be what I need long term. I have to confess, however, that it sure was a snap to set up.

    • Carol Lynn Rivera says:

      That’s a great question, George. I debated mentioning WordPress but didn’t want to get TOO long-winded 🙂

      WordPress is a bit of a different horse… you can buy your theme and take it with you, so that if you switch developers or switch hosting providers, you don’t have to start over. But obviously you can’t take a WordPress theme design and move it to Drupal or something else. So you’re limited to a specific platform, but ultimately the content belongs to you and you’re not beholden to any one developer one way or another (unless they own your domain name which would be bad all around!)

      Even if you decide to leave WordPress altogether, you can still export the content and grab your photos and go.

      I suppose you could run into licensing issues if you have a custom theme developed but I’ve never run into that problem and most people just buy a theme from someplace like Themeforest anyway. If you ever go down the road of hiring someone to build and design a custom theme, just read the contract. Otherwise, as long as you’re happy with WordPress, you can hire whoever you want to help you with it and in the end it’s still yours. Should the day come that you quit WordPress, you’ll need to redesign the site using whatever themes or options are available for the platform you choose but that’s pretty standard. And like I said, all the content, branding, photos, etc are still yours.