Who Owns My Website? Ownership and Terminology

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Barrett Lombardo

“I want to own my website” Sooner or later, every web design company needs to address this request. Simple as it sounds, it really is complicated. A website is built with many assembled parts and you may be surprised to learn who legally owns each part.

The following website terminology is a guide of what you really own and what you’re really just leasing.

Web Server – You Don’t Typically Own This

The computer running the Web Server Platform that hosts your website.

  • For most hosting services, the data center owns your web server and leases it to you or your web vendor.
  • Obviously, you will own your website server if you purchase one, but this is usually cost prohibitive to maintain.

Web Server Platform – You Don’t Own This

This is the system software running on the server. Common examples include LAMP (Linux Apache MySql PHP), Windows IIS + ASP.NET, and Microsoft SQL Server.

  • You will never own this.

Content Management System (CMS) – You Don’t Own This

A Web Application that is used to manage the administration of content for your website. Examples include WordPress, Drupal, and Shopify.

  • You only own your CMS if you author your own source code and wrote it yourself. This is common to all software. Unless you’re a software company, you don’t own any software on any computer.
  • The CMS (and all software) is owned by the respective creators and licensed to you.
  • Custom programming written on top of a Website Platform might be something you can own. This gets complicated with Open-Source platforms due to the GNU General Public License.

Database Software – You Don’t Own This

Common examples include MySql, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Access.

  • You will never own the actual database.
  • You own your website data and content stored in the database if you author it.

Source Code (other custom programming) – You Don’t Typically Own This

The programmed code created in the language of the Web Server Platform that contains the logic and connectors to other software running on the server. Source code may also communicate with outside integrated system servers. The source code will generate the HTML/CSS/Javascript for the browser to render to your screen.

  • You will own your website source code if you or your employee authors it.
  • Otherwise, it is owned by the creator and licensed to you.
  • “Work for hire” could be specified in the agreement to ensure you own the website source code upon completion and final payment of the project. This gets complicated with proprietary and Open-Source platforms due to Intellectual Property and the GNU General Public License.
  • Control” of the source code is usually the critical concern with contracting custom development and is usually amenable by using an open-source platform.

HTML/CSS/Javascript – You Should Own This

HTML and CSS are the building blocks of almost all websites. It is a language that browsers understand. The Javascript is programming that may alter the HTML and CSS as one interacts with the website.

  • The website creator should provide an agreement giving HTML/CSS/Javascript ownership to you upon completion and final payment of the project.
  • Otherwise, unless you or your employees authored it, it is owned by the website creator and licensed to you.

Visual Design – You Should Own This

The combination of layout and presentable graphical assets like colors, photography and typography to create the user interface, images and videos, and readable content of the website. The HTML/CSS/Javascript will contain the information to display these assets so the browser can render the website on your screen.

  • The website creator should provide an agreement giving website visual design ownership to you upon completion and final payment of the project.
  • Otherwise, unless you or your employee created the designs, it is owned by the creator and licensed to you.

Text Content – You Own This

The formatted, readable, search engine indexable, copy and pastable website text that is rendered in the browser.

  • You will own your website text content if you or your employee authors the content.
  • Otherwise, the creator of the website is the legal “author” of the website text content.
  • The website creator should provide an agreement giving website content ownership to you upon completion and final payment of the project.

Photography – You Own This… If You Took The Pictures

The entire or part of a digitized photograph used on a website as either part of the logo, user interface, slideshow, gallery, video or other visual design asset.

  • You will own your website photography if you or your employee captures the photographs
  • Otherwise, you are only given a license to others’ photography. Keep a record of that license.

Browser – You Don’t Own This

A browser is the computer software we use to look at websites. Examples are Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Opera. A browser will display the rendered website which includes the HTML/CSS/Javascript and all visual design assets.

  • You will never own this.

Domain Name – You Don’t Own This Either. Surprised?

The Domain Name appears in the address bar of the browser. It is the humanly memorable, identifiable part of the website URL that is indexed by search engines, displayed in most marketing, and remembered as part of the brand.

  • You do not actually own a domain name even though you are a registered domain owner.
  • You have a contract with the domain registrar giving you “ownership” of the domain much like a contract with a telephone company for a phone number.
  • From Wikipedia: “…domain name registration with a registrar does not confer any legal ownership of the domain name, only an exclusive right of use.”

The Legal Reality of Owning a Website

  • You will never legally own the domain name, web server platform, CMS, web platform, database software, or language used to build your website.
  • You will usually never own the web server that hosts your website.
  • You are be granted a license to use the Intellectual Property of the website creator and/or the web platform used to build it.
  • Only if you program the website yourself or have a “work for hire” agreement, you will own the website source code.
  • If you author your own content, design the interface, take your own photographs, and create your own graphics, you will own all of the website “visual design” and content.

Own Your Website “Finished Assembled Work”

The website terminology that matters most is the “finished assembled work.” I define this as the HTML/CSS/Javascript, visual design, and the text content that is rendered by the Browser. The entirety of finished assembled work can be saved and stored by you, and can be rebuilt with any website platform. Look for contractual terms defining “finished assembled work” and stating you own the website “finished assembled work” upon completion and final payment of the project.

Are you surprised? Have anything to add? Just leave a comment below.

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Barrett Lombardo

Barrett Lombardo

Co-Founder / Chief Operating Officer of Orbit Media Studios
Barrett Lombardo is the Co-Founder and COO at Orbit Media Studios. Barrett has been developing websites since 1995. He manages the creation of products and services that Orbit offers to meet the needs of Orbit clients.You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Comments (55)
  • I’m an employee for a non-profit organization and built a website that is entire custom (though not necessarily pretty) code. It was funded by another local non-profit as a sponsor. I’m trying to figure out who owns the code and the finished product. It seems to me that the organization works for would own it, unless there’s an agreement stating otherwise, yes?

  • I am thinking of buying an existing web site. I know how to transfer the domain name. What I want to make sure I have a handle on is this: the existing content, including code. This site pays people to write articles. The articles are edited by an employee of the site. The edited articles(including photos if used) are sent to woman at an LLC(who uploads them to the server). It is all the uploaded content I seek to gain control of.

  • Hello, this is very well written. I have built a website that the client refuses to pay the remainder fees (over $2000). I still have ftp access, but have been locked out of the website. Will you please share the copyright laws that you are referring to?
    I wrote the code for the custom website and pages. I use WordPress and bootstrap, but I develop custom themes from a skeleton theme.
    I would like to repossess the theme, but not destroy their WordPress framework. I would appreciate the case law to support my right as owner.
    Can you refer me to any links about “website repossession”? I have searched everywhere. I cannot believe there are not more articles about this.

    Thank you, again. This is one of the best articles on the subject after hours of searching.

  • It’s greedy how web developers get paid to build a client’s website and then refuse to give it to them outright.. you don’t see builders finish a house for somebody, get paid but then refuse to hand over the keys

  • This is brilliant for me to read and comprehend, especially as I had web developer freelancer work on my project and implications had occurred. Let me try and explain in a précis. Ok, so it’s my 1st time embarking upon one of my dreams and already planned written and drafted the idea, to build a website, or have it be built, based upon my valid input and the uploading of templates, drafts, sketches, communication input via messaging, having joined up with Freelancer.com. To cut the long story short, I asked for the freelancer to sign an IP agreement for sole ownership and rights of my project upon satisfactory completion and release of payment. Towards the final stages of my project, we began to disagree and he would often sound resenting of my enthusiasm and sudden knowledge in wanting to discuss with him what I have read, learned and understood about the cyber world, Internet, developing etc and in starting up a short,study course and I had began to notice problems occurring, especially when the hosting site I was about to register up with needed to find out if the core codes had been touched and in wanting to ask some important questions for me to raise to the developer.

    Ok so what happened next and was not only heartbreaking for me as I saw a dream be wiped away just like that, was that the freelancer breached his contract with me and deleted my entire project/ website and its contents, and returned the monies back to me and mentioned, not wanting to be paid and that I no longer own nothing other than the domain name, so wrong was he. He then went on to abuse me verbally I have ALL documented evidence and I in no was had refused to not pay him, and he stole all of my uploading images, draft sketches and designs of how I wanted the website to be built, disregarding the fact that I had already copyright protected them…ok, so luckily the hosting site managed to salvage some of the website having gone into their disaster recovery back up system, their validation confirmed that the site had been emptied. I am slowly building back my website alone for now. So therefore I see it as, he owns nothing as he deleted the project, returned the monies as I am not able to do so once it had left my bank account and was paid into a retainer account, that the freelancer is only able to cancel should he no longer wish to complete project or it there is a dispute…and the strangest thing about it all, he had sent me All files, folders, contents, etc to be before hand and myself not realising that this was a back up and sadly contained viruses upon download….Should I continue building my dream, am I right in saying he owns nothing as he breached to agreement that he had agreed to and signed?

  • I’m hoping you’ll respond …

    My interpretation of the online Drupal 8 User Guide: 1.7. Concept: Drupal Licensing section, is that all files, including those that make up the “finished assembled work” as you call it, are “are a derivative work of Drupal.”

    How can a design agency sign over design ownership to a client if they themselves do not own it in the first place? How is it possible to have an agreement that includes the legal transfer of all applicable licenses to the client?

  • I created a web platform using c#, t-sql for database modelling, redis cache scripts, javascripts code, css codes, html tags and all the code for back ends and front-end, i am using azure web servers in the cloud to run the whole stuffs, i always stored my works in different places, usb hard drive, google drive, dropbox and use post office to post my finished works to my permanent address without opening the parcels on reception. I have not registered the work with any third party copyright authority. I want to ask if these works are protected by these media I used. The platform is growing in popularity, but my cash returns and my immigration document is why i haven’t copyrighted it with the government!

  • Does this information still hold true today in 2017?

  • I’m using this great post to help with a messy situation. I built a site for a business. My business is web design, etc. but he also hired me as a 1099 contractor to do other functions, part of which was web design. Fast forward and he owes me over $6000 and thinks he owns his website. I hold the domain and control the hosting. I used premium plugins and theme that I paid for. Thanks to this I feel like I have leverage or if nothing else, retaliation for non payment.

  • If I was hired to create a website – including all written content + visual design – and they paid me for my services to create the site, who owns the written content+visual design?

    • It depends on your agreement.

  • Hi, very informative post! Based on you professional opinion, I’m wondering if I hire a company to build me a realtor’s website, would I own the url? That is, if I decide to switch website companies later on, could I use the same url? Thanks a lot

    • If you register the domain, the domain is yours to use however you like – but you don’t actually own it – you lease it.

  • Hi — my web developer designed a website for me and I never drafted up a contract. Do u have a simple contract i can use to present this to the web designer.

    • Sorry we don’t.

  • Cool, direct answers! Keep writing.

    • Thank you! Keep commenting 😉

  • To be honest if we start to think what are the things we own in our site then I am sure it will be a frighting for sure. So thats why I think a back up is very much important when it comes to websites.

  • Is it possible to recover a web site if the server host won’t sign it over

    • If the website is publicly accessible, you could use a webzip tool to essentially download the assembled work. If the site runs mostly on front-end code like javascript, then you essentially have the site. There is no way to get to back-end code like PHP or the CMS without access to the server.

  • I am so pleased that you raise this issue. I am a freelance web developer and I support transparency. Many businesses show little interest in their user names and passwords until there is an issue. I believe that the site belongs to the person who pays for it.

  • Excellent post about ownership, many thanks! Great job of simplifying something that can be really complicated to explain. Really helps deconstruct all the layers of IP that come together to make a website.

  • We own an agency and have multiple small business owners come to us stating their previous agency is refusing to give them access to their website. We are oublishing and ebook and would like to quote you in it. Can we?

    • Of course! You are welcome to quote this article anytime you’d like. Please just be sure to link back to the original. If you’d like me to provide a quote on something specific, just let me know. Also, be sure to let me know when the ebook is published and I’ll have our team of marketers share it with our network.

      Thanks for asking, Sangeeta! Happy to collaborate with you.

      • Hi, I helped convert my friends website into an android app, but Google required a document that proves it permitted by the web owner. What kind of document would it be. Thanks.

  • This is fantastically well-written and helpful. I realize this sounds like spam comment but it isn’t! A great link to share with my client. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks for the comment! You are very welcome.

  • Thank you for this article, with simple terminologies!

  • I have a question that goes a bit beyond this. It is I sure apparently inane, but before totally dismissing, think about it.

    When it comes to being a search index, for instance Google and Bing, now who owns that content they are indexing?

    The content they crawl is essentially, mainly the code and text as the relevant parts. This content as I see it belongs, if I authored it, did the coding, belongs to me. The domain itself, although I don’t own it, is licensed to me.

    So on just about any website, Terms of Use is a major factor and within legal reason, the terms of use are up to the owner of said site.

    Big corporations love this stuff since few read it and you could be effectively selling them your soul. They can almost do as they please, on reasonable conditions, while you’re running around on their property.

    So what do the major search engines put in place, but terms of use that it is basically a privilege, not a right to be indexed.

    Whoah! Wait a minute. That would be true, except the reverse is also true. It is a privilege and not a right of the search engines to index. Which is why, you can basically put into your robot.txt file to stop, and they will stop.

    There is a in-between though. You are not obligated in anyway to have a robot.txt set to deny them. If you don’t request they index, thereby agreeing to their terms, or submit sitemaps, also requesting and the search engine comes along on its own, crawling links, lands on your site and starts indexing, they are now on your property and within reason, a search engine terms of use would also be applicable for them to put this information on their index.

    I didn’t see this as a issue until Google started going frankly insane on some of its demands. The list of factors they calculate is now over two hundred and growing.

    The most ridiculous thing they have done so far is to punish backlink profiles that in many cases the website owner has no control over, then they put in a disavow function. This does not stop the link in anyway. It only accomplishes, over a very long time to get something negative off your record that shouldn’t be negative, but neutral at most, where it adds no benefit on being there. Problem solved. What Google is doing with this is incentivizing the effectiveness and use of Black Hat SEO tactics against web site owners, and diminishing competitive factors.

    It makes people so wary of links both off and to their sites much of what has been perfect legitimate for a very long time gets stigmatized and avoided. In effect, directories, banner linking to other niche type sites, affiliate advertising, reciprocal linking, paid advertisement links. It is a incredibly long list at this point, and although a certain amount may be legitimately regarded as spam, every click through them is also Google competition. Even affiliate advertising is competition to Google adsense.

    Point being that although I have respect for allot of what Google does, I feel they are going overboard because they can, on content and a Internet they do not own.

    I think this is something that should have been done a long time ago, before the search engines, especially Google had this much power and control with everyone becoming so dependent on them, doing whatever it took, whatever they demanded to be in their good graces. A defining line that said, this is our content and we can live with reason, but what is reasonable is not just up to Google to decide.

    I know what would be the effect if I made a Search Engine Terms of Use Page for my website and sent a copy to Google’s legal department. They would quit indexing my site or think its a joke.

    But look behind the curtain on that one and imagine, on the gross reality of it, what would be their reaction if that terms of search engine indexing use existed on every website? I think a few things might go away, with disavow and penalizing sites over link profiles they can’t seriously control being the first on the list.

    Before Googzilla gets any bigger, the Internet needs to reign them in a bit.

  • I had a web designer build me a new website. He does not host me. He just built the web site. Can he refuse to give me the CMS passwords? Thanks…Dennis

  • Great article, succinctly written, thanks. Passing it to my IT guys now, they never understand our world of web development (scary). 🙂

    • Thanks!

  • All this does is make me want to build my own web server platform, CMS, web platform, and database software. I can write a mean machine language and I could foolishly go about the rest of my days trying to build the whole kicking caboodle from scratch. Mark my words!
    I’m not sure how to go about the domain business…. but there must be a way!

  • If a volunteer of a non profit designs a web site but the organization paid for the site, who owns it? The designer has removed the site.

  • I’m an independent contractor in marketing and I made an easy website for a client. This client never uses contracts with anyone and has been taken advantage of quite often. Now I’m finding out that’s probably not the case, as the client is a major user and doesn’t use contracts so they can keep piling work on you and not pay you extra. When I built the website, I wrote a contract to protect myself – and nowhere in the contract did I put anything about transferring ownership of the website to the client. So is that my website? If they want me to do work and not pay me and I refuse – and they fire me – I keep the website, right?

    • Sounds like you have a dispute to negotiate. I recommend always using signed agreements that protect your time and scope. If your contract states “work for hire”, it may imply that the website belongs to the client.

  • I appreciated all of this – although most of it is over my head. I am a retired psychologist. My late husband (chemist) and I built a small Black History Library in Sedalia, Mo. for the purpose of talking about race. I am working with a recently licensed? web designer. The procedure is most awkward. She wants me to e-mail her all the info/pictures. As I am barely computer literate – this is all most difficult Why can’t we get on Team Viewer 8 and do it together? Help, Margaret

  • If I use a company that uses a template to build the site do I own the website or am I leasing it?

    • My understanding is you own the “license to use” the template – but the original template is “owned” by the foundry or creator.

  • So if i have someone create my website for me and i pay them for it, who owns the website? Me or the person who created it? Should i have them sign a legal agreement that says that they are only creating it and that they do not own it? Thanks.

    • Your agreement should include the legal transfer of all applicable licenses to you.

  • It would have been great if a company that I work for had seen this article prior to commissioning a developer to produce their web site and database. The developer has been paid and the site is incomplete and full of bugs yet thedeveloper will not complete it or fix the bugs.

  • it’s amazing to me how few of my clients ask about who owns the design we do for them! Most of our contracts point out that they DO own the design, but if we left this out few would ever ask! And most of my clients are lawyers!

    • Websites are still a mystery to most people! Just like I don’t fully understand Trademark and Copyright law!

      Design ownership is important to protect via contract if your firm repurposes designs as a template for multiple clients. In contrast, any custom design should be unique enough to the client to be owned by them.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/can-you-register-domain-name-as-trademark.html
        I had this issue with a client. We researched development of a website but had not yet registered the domain name. It was the same as the business name which had been Trademarked decades before. One of the people we contacted registered the domain name of the business. Because of the trademark, or even without it we were told, easily gained control of the domain. Your Trademarked and even some copyrighted items the domain names can not be legal leased to any other person. I believe this is also only if it is an exact match.
        Had I been smart as many were in the early days I could have registered nytimes.com and maybe gotten some money for its sale. I could not have legally fought to hold newyorktimes.com
        No one should be able to register and hold a domain names that clearly are your trademarked name, copyrighted title, Legal business name or DBA name. Most domain registration company’s have a process for you to prove “ownership” and thus gain control. Effectively you own the domain.
        Failure to register it does not give others the right to use it if you are properly protected. My understanding is you could also file a Cease-and-desist on a domain of a name that you own and not even have to register it yourself.

  • thanks…very helpful

  • I am pleased to see recent comments and questions!

    I will do my best to address them. Thanks so much.

  • I was tricked into paying the whole amount for a website that has never been finished, it is unusable and the designers will not answer my calls. I paid £3000 to infobox ltd, for a site that does not work. I gave them content, data, pictures they used there own domain name.

    How can I get the developers to finish the site.
    Can I get any money back.
    Would it be worth taking legal advise
    Who owns the rights ti the site as they display it as one of their own on there own site.
    I have tried emailing and calling them, and they always say that I will have to pay more money for a non working site.
    I know I was an idiot to give them the whole amount..but it went out of an account that should have been in installments and I trusted them to finish the job..this has been going on for over two years now…any suggestions please.

  • I came upon this discussion because I’m trying to determine that question of who owns my site (it’s my product being sold). I have a website on Shopify and contracted with a designer to customize the site for me. I thought, never having been through this before, once this project was completed, we’d agree on the completion, the site would be turned over to me and if we chose, we may never interact again. It turns out the relationship with this design company has been a bit contentious and I really want to part ways. I figured I can always contract with another developer to enhance my site as needed and maybe even sell it if the opportunity presents in the future. Now this developer, who actually opened a new Shopify store when she started this project (I thought she would would build within my existing store and design a new template in a test environment), so she is technically the owner of my new store and I have limited admin ability, which really scares me.

    So now she is telling me the design is hers and I can never sell it. I’m crazy frustrated because the last thing I want is to be tied to this designer for the life of my site. I invested quite a bit of money in this and dumping it to go to another one is just not an option. I hate that I’m learning this now but I had never been through this process before and had no idea what to look for. Any insight is appreciated…

    • Did you ever solve this issue? I have a very similar issue and am looking for proper resolution

    • thanks for the post insight as i was about to make the same mistake

  • My publisher has a website using the name of my books that I have the copyrights to. I want the website name that he owns for my own content. So who has the rights to the website?

  • superb details! i like you blog topic. its completely new for me. i m happy to visit your post.

  • Awesome post, Learnt the new concept of not being the owner of the domain being the registered domain from your blog never taken it that way. Thanks for the post.

  • Great rundown on the basics here Barrett, in surprisingly simple terms.

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