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Business Owners: Who Owns Your Website?

If anyone other than you created your website, the answer to this question is not likely a simple one. Many website design and marketing companies tout low fees, however those low fees can come with a high price: ownership of part or all of your website. These agreements often also contain barriers to deter you from taking website content to a different provider. This could be a large fee or even a flat-out refusal to turn over the files that make up your website.

Elements of a Website

Here are a few key website terms to know:

  • Website content: The written words and images (including original photography or drawings) on the webpage.
  • Website design: The unique visual elements of the webpage.
  • Source code: The specific coding language that implements the design of the website.
  • Content management system: The software tool that publishes and manages the content of the website, e.g. WordPress.
  • Domain name: A unique name that identifies a webpage, e.g. “google.com”.

How to Know if You Own Your Website

Read your contract with the website creator/designer. If you don’t see any language stating that you, the business, owns the site, you don’t own it. If it turns out you don’t own the design or content, the next step is to see what hoops you’ll have to jump through to get those items (case in point: the fees mentioned above). Some web design contracts have an “ownership condition date.” These typically lay out a time period and certain conditions that must be met before you get ownership of the website. Getting around such a term is likely accomplished by paying a hefty fee.

What you Can and Cannot Own

You can own the website design, content, and source code, to an extent. It’s not possible to own your domain name — the fee paid to your hosting provider is actually for the exclusive right to use the name. It’s also not possible to own the content management system (unless you’re in the business of content management and create your own).

For Future Reference

If you are starting a new website project, make sure your agreement specifically says that you will own all of these items, from the start, without conditions:

  • All website content, even if written by the design company.
  • The website design.
  • Any custom source code and files associated with the website (including any CSS, HTML, or JavaScript files).
  • The rights to your domain name.

Avoid “proprietary platforms,” and ownership condition date clauses that make it hard or impossible to transfer your website. Ask where the site will be hosted. Ask how much it will cost to create and maintain the website. Be sure you understand the ownership terms for each element of the site.

Most importantly, READ THE CONTRACT before you sign it or hire an attorney to read and explain the contract to you. As with most legal matters, even a small investment of time and money up-front can save you much money and headaches later.