The old saying goes that possession is nine-tenths the law. But when it comes to our virtual online world—especially in the realm of website design and management—that adage doesn’t always ring true.
Too many people who hire an individual designer or firm to build and launch their website often don’t pay special attention to the fine print of a contract and are shocked to learn—usually after the site goes live—that they have less control over changes, edits and general administration than they thought. They may not own the domain name; they may be barred from taking the site to another server or designer; they may have become saddled with a proprietary Content Management System (CMS) that requires a professional to access and utilize; the list can go on and on.
So how can you protect yourself and your intellectual property and ensure that your site is truly yours? Here are a few tips for the uninitiated.
- The absolute first thing you should do is read any contract carefully, and even have a lawyer give it a once-over if there are elements you don’t understand. The contract should state in clear and certain terms that you own the website and everything from the domain name to the content you have on there.
- Ask the designer or firm directly whether or not they have the right of ownership to the actual design (minus any content you wrote, photos or video you provided or even stock imagery you purchased independently and asked the designer to use). Sometimes, with custom site designs that aren’t pulled from existing templates, the designer has the right to copyright said design, which means you may be unable to take it to another designer should you choose and would have to start over from scratch if you decided to make a move.
- One way many design firms keep control of a site in the most practical way is to insist that the client use their proprietary CMS. Too often these custom systems require someone who is highly skilled with the platform to make changes and edits to the site on behalf of the client. The problem with this relationship? If you want or need to make a change to the site immediately, the designer may not share your sense of urgency and could answer your requests on their schedule, not yours, meaning it could be days or weeks before your changes happen.
- Another good way to be sure you truly own your site is to determine—before you sign a contract—whether or not you’ll be allowed to take your site to another designer or hosting server should you wish to do so. Again, this is where it pays to read the fine print. If you can’t migrate to another server that may be faster, cheaper or more efficient, your site is essentially being held hostage and you may be stuck where it is until the contract comes to term or expires all together.
- Lastly (and it may sound a bit obvious) but purchasing the domain name for your site personally—independent of a website designer—is a smart idea. If you do happen to have a major falling out with your designer and find yourself having to start all over with someone else, at the very least you can take comfort that the name is legally in your possession and there won’t be a serious break in your site’s availability to existing and repeat visitors who may constitute the bulk of your supporter and customer base.