The Surprising Truth About Who Owns Your Website

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

H.L. Menken’s observation might as well have been a prognostication of today’s digital age. The hand-held computers we call phones -- which provide us access to a wealth of entertainment and knowledge Menken’s generation couldn’t have imagined -- are the epitome of the complex made simple.

And all of it just works. Install a new app and it configures itself with little assistance or guidance.

If you’ve had a website built recently, chances are good that it too, just works. A far cry from what web development looked like just a decade ago.

But beneath that façade of simplicity lies several layers of complexities. And determining what, if any part of your website you in fact own -- can be difficult to say with any degree of certainty.

Let’s begin with the parts you don’t own.

You don’t own your domain name.

Each website is comprised of several assembled parts, the first and arguably the most important, is the domain name. It’s important to understand that domain name registration doesn’t confer any legal ownership of the domain name, just an exclusive right to use it for a specified time.

While it’s true one can sell the rights to the domain, it’s not true ownership but more of a contract like what you have with your wireless carrier for your mobile number.

Even still, you should make sure that no matter who registers your domain, they register it in your name. And avoid making the all too common mistake of filing away the registration credentials in a place where it will be forgotten or misplaced. Remember, if your domain name fails to get renewed each year, your visitors will not find your website.

You don’t typically own the code.

Because the frontend source code used to create modern websites often originates from a templating framework like Foundation or Bootstrap, it’s owned by the respective creators. The only way you would own the source code is if you or your employee authors it from scratch — otherwise it’s owned by the creator and licensed to you.

This also applies to the web server platform, programming code, database software, and CMS (Content Management System) on which your website runs.

It’s unlikely you own your server.

Modern website hosting typically involves more than one server. Alternatively, a low-cost provider will host multiple websites (sometimes into the thousands) on a single server. In most cases, one leases space from a service provider to host a website.

Technically, one could purchase a server and create their own data center, but it’s not the smartest way to spend your money.

You should own your website content.

The text, the visual design, and all the imagery that make up your website’s content should be yours. But even here, there can be some uncertainty.

You own the entirety of your website content if you or your employee created it. But because few companies develop their website in-house, it’s important to read and fully understand the contract one has with a development company.

Surprisingly, the contracts employed by many web design firms give them the legal ownership of the content they develop. And it’s usually only when a business decides to migrate their site to another provider do they find out the bad news.

Additionally, many companies license stock photography for use in the websites they develop for their clients, meaning the development company owns the license, not you. Again, if you or your employee took the picture, you own it.

Cover your bases and avoid becoming a hostage.

Unfortunately, there are bad people in the world. But understanding what pieces of your website you own and what should be in your control goes a long way to avoiding trouble.

And as I’ve said before, when you hire a web development company, you’re creating a partnership that will likely last for years. It’s not always apparent what problems a bad partnership might create, but it’s easy to become hostage to a web development company or a “web guy” without proper due diligence on the front side.

While development contracts that place restrictions on creative ownership get a lot of attention, the most common problem situation is one in which the web development company registered your domain — in their name or with an account other than yours. While this is, in many cases, expedient, it gives them full control over your website.

Recently, an opportunist attempted to take advantage of a Phoenix-based company who misplaced their domain registration credentials. When asked for the account information, Tavis Tso, their IT professional, told the company he didn’t have it, redirected the company’s website to a blank page, and disabled the company’s email accounts.

Then, he offered to “fix” the problem for the low price of $10,000. When the company refused his offer, he redirected the company’s domain to a porn site.

Tso was eventually convicted of Computer Fraud, but not before causing some serious headaches.

The legalities of owning a website can often be unclear, but not impossible to determine. Beginning the process with an understanding of all the parts involved -- and how each is created -- along with a trustworthy development partner, will go a long way towards protecting your investment and your sanity.

Top photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash